My Sophia is upset. You see, today at school the local police will be taking the fingerprints of all kindergarteners whose parents signed a permission slip for them to do so. Her father and I have not and will not grant permission for her fingerprints to be taken. Which means that Sophia will be left sitting somewhere by herself while the rest of the kids get inked up. And she doesn’t want to be made to left out like that. I guess that this will just have to be an early lesson in the importance of standing up for something you believe in – even if it means being the only one left out.
There are several reasons that I won’t consider allowing the police to take my children’s fingerprints. First being that there is just no reason to. The police and school say this as a safety precaution, but taking a kid’s fingerprints doesn’t protect them from any harm. There’s not one terrible event which could be prevented by having my kid’s handprint on file. Even if something really awful were to happen to her, fingerprints could only help police to make an identification. But even then, this would only help if she were still alive or her body had been found within a relatively short time of death before decay set in. And even if that were the case, other means of identification like pictures and DNA can be used. So, the practical value of having her fingerprints on file is pretty much nil.
Even more than that, I think that the whole notion that it is reasonable or responsible to to keep her fingerprints on file “just in case” is corrosive in and of itself. You would never know it from watching the news or observing many parents, but our kids are safer today than they have been in decades. Crime – including crimes against children - have dropped precipitously from their high points in the early 90s. Yet rather than celebrating the fact that we live in a time where our children are so safe, we live in fear. And we pass that fear on to our kids.
Kids don’t have access to crime statistics, but they are sharp enough to understand that if we are taking their fingerprints “just in case”, it’s because there is a real chance that they will be needed. And yes, terrible things do happen. But close to 95% of violence against children occurs at the hands of people they know – often in their own homes. The chances of any particular child being the victim of crime in any other context are vanishingly remote. To put this into perspective, more than three times as many people are struck by lightning each year in the USA than there are children kidnapped by strangers each year. To make plans for this sort of “just in case” event would be much like buying clothing designed to conduct electricity in the event of a lightning strike. It happens, but not so often that we prepare for it!
And this fear that we have about our kid’s safety isn’t harmless. Aside from the anxiety, we have a very real childhood obesity epidemic. But fear of crime against children plays a major role in keeping kids indoors, away from playgrounds or taking long walks and bike rides. Even those parents who don’t live in fear for their child’s safety must worry that if they allow their child outside without a keeper neighbors will talk and CPS might even be called.
My brothers and sisters and I used to wander all over town and the neighbors never thought it was a problem! Well, there was that one time my mom got a call telling her that I was sitting on my bike on the corner eating candy – a sure sign I wasn’t supposed to have candy and had probably stolen coins to buy it with. But even though I was statistically more likely to have been the victim of crime as a child back in the 80s than my kids are today, no one thought my mother was negligent or putting us in danger to let us walk to the park by ourselves.
I want my kids to grow up to be strong, confident people who can move through their world freely, not afraid of shadows and boogey-men because my fear kept them from being given the chance to learn basic competence. So, I am philosophically and morally opposed to behaving as if my children are in ever-present danger. Heck, I even encourage my kids to talk to people while out and about. Because it’s good for them and our communities to be able to carry on friendly conversations with people they meet. They just can’t go anywhere with anyone -even a friend – without talking with me directly.
I know, I’m a terrible mother. But I’d rather be a terrible mother with competent kids than a “good” mother whose kids never get to practice being independent or taking small risks. I do not want my kids living in fear or thinking that it is normal to arrange life out of fear of things that could, but almost certainly won’t happen.
The reality is that terrible things happen. Terrible things will always happen. It’s part of life. I’m not super-human. I’m not God. I can take reasonable precautions against predictable tragedies, but I will never be able to make my kids or myself completely safe. It’s not my job and trying to do so is itself quite predictably harmful.
Besides, I prefer to direct my paranoia towards more realistic targets. For example, the real reason the police want everyone’s fingerprints on file has nothing to do with child safety – that’s just an easy, guilt-laden cover. They know perfectly well that there’s pretty much no practical safety-related reason to fingerprint 5 year olds. The fact of the matter is that the most likely use of my kid’s fingerprints would be to catch her if she were to commit a crime in ten years. Or if she were present in a place where a crime was committed – perhaps not even when it was committed! Innocent people have been convicted on less. Or they may be used by an identity thief looking for a way to get through biometric security. Or even for an out-of-control government keeping an increasingly unruly populace under its thumb so that the rich can live in peace. Maybe it’s not a real threat today. But how about ten years from now? Twenty? God willing, she has the genes to still be kicking around in 80 or 90 years and there’s no way that I can guess what will be going on then. I mean, good heavens – there could be a Marxist Kenyan bent on destroying all that is good and holy in office by then – bwahahaha! But whatever happens, it won’t involve a set of fingerprints kept on file from when she was 5.