What Smokey Bear taught me about “stranger danger” and miscalculating fear


Unrelated to Love Not Fear, I learned this week how Smokey Bear misled us in ways that hurt us still today.  I was touring a land conservancy and research station that focuses on the effect of fire on the land, and the tour guide, a former director of the station, was very clear: Smokey Bear’s success had created seriously damaging unintended consequences.

Smokey Bear (not “Smokey the Bear,” just as not “Easter the Bunny”, according to the guide) has been one of the most successful Ad Council campaigns in history, teaching us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” The campaign sparked (sorry for the pun) by a bear rescued from a wildfire in the 1940’s, was intended to teach campers to be good stewards of the land by ensuring that we put out campfires.  At roughly the same time, Bambi came out, and you may recall the traumatic wildfire scene at the movie’s start.  Together they shaped American public opinion to fear fires in the wilderness. (Though I can’t prove it today, they may also have contributed to a fear of the wilderness in general and a decline of camping.)

The problem is, fires are an essential and natural part of maintaining biodiversity. Because  Smokey Bear’s original message was indiscriminate in its label and out of proportion in its impact, not only are people less likely to spend time out in the forest, but we’ve created a culture that makes it hard to allow fire to play its role in the ecosystem.  The results include not only threats to species that rely on fire to control rival species but, because of the buildup of combustible material, the unintended consequence of greater conditions for  damaging wildfires.  This post isn’t really about wildfires, but you can read more about them here, here, here and here.

But let’s look at how the focus on “stranger danger” plays out the same way.  I’ve already made the point that one of the key issues in America’s destructive culture of fear is the lack of social networks – family and friends – to help process and defuse fear. We need to rely on each other in our local communities as neighbors to pull us away from the screen and to ground us in the reality that things aren’t as scary as what you see on TV.  But thanks to the proliferation of TV shows about child abductions, we have developed a culture that shields children from the threat of being abducted to the point that many of us won’t let our child out of our sight even for a moment.  We do this despite the fact that the odds of a stranger abducting a child are incredibly remote – one study pegged them at 1 in 640,000; another analysis was that one one one-hundredth of 1 percent of missing children are abducted by strangers – in a country of almost 75 million (75,000,000) children, the last study available indicated that only 115 children a year are abducted by strangers.

Let me hasten to say, one abducted child, much less 115, is too many. We should certainly teach our children to minimize that risk. And I am not a “free-range parent” – I very much reflect this culture.

But the reality is, in the process of ensuring our children’s safety, we have miscalculated the risks of strangers in both scope and target in ways that create damaging fear in our children and in ourselves.  Many children raised in a family too heavily focused on fear of abduction develop anxieties of their own. And many adults, while teaching children “never talk to strangers,” internalize that message themselves.  Since all of us, at one time, have been strangers to each other, the unintended consequence is that we who most need community to lessen the fear being pumped into our lives are taught above all not to connect with the strangers who represent our best chance of building the strong communities we need.

1 thought on “What Smokey Bear taught me about “stranger danger” and miscalculating fear

  1. beth Schwarzmüller March 13, 2016 — 7:57 pm

    This one is too difficult for me. I know that more children are injured by acquaintances than be strangers…. but 115 is still too many. I think we can teach our children to be kind to strangers in controlled settings … homeless shelters, churches, etc ….or when they in a group …. but not someone they meet on a city street while they are alone. Some fear is healthy ….


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