Parents who "protect" children by terrifying them with horror stories about strangers exact a huge toll on the emotional well-being of children.

"What is lost in society is greater than any protection we get out of it," said James Garbarino, professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University in New York. Garbarino, author of numerous books on child abuse prevention and emotional well-being of children, was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the eighth annual regional conference on child abuse prevention in Ogden.A far better strategy, he said, is "to not focus on strangers, but that as parents you're responsible. They're not free to make a lot of decisions. `You have to ask me first.' That takes the responsibility for screening strangers off children. Asking kids to watch out is unrealistic."

Instead, he said, teach children that whether they're invited to go to a friend's house or leave with a stranger, they have to ask mom or dad first. It becomes second nature - without the terror.

Coal miners traditionally took canaries into the mines because they were more vulnerable to bad air. If they dropped, miners knew to get out.

Emotionally battered children are America's canary in the mine shaft, he said.

"We live in a socially toxic environment. The most vulnerable show the effects first and worst."

Garbarino, author of "The Psychologically Battered Child," believes we are raising children in a "culture of paranoia," where growing numbers see communities as dangerous.

A study of elementary-age kids found 43 percent thought it likely they would be kidnapped by a stranger - an occurrence they rated 6.9 on a 7-point trauma scale.

"Kid paranoia is a growing fact of life for children," he said.

They also suffer from a "depletion of time for adults with children."

The most vulnerable among abused and neglected children, according to Garbarino, are those who are psychologically abused. In 1975, 10 percent of American children were in "deep mental-health trouble." When the study was duplicated in 1989, the percentage rose to 18. "Now we estimate the number is more than 25 percent," he said.

The result of a generation that sees only gloom is "declining faith in society as a whole." They don't believe in government, marriage or family. They are demoralized, and that leads to a personal attitude of "pleasure before principle" and do whatever you want.

It doesn't have to be that way. Garbarino believes society can embark on two complimentary strategies: Detoxify the environment and strengthen and protect the family structure.

Garbarino identified the five worst possible things parents can do to children: reject them, isolate them, terrorize them, ignore them or corrupt them. Unfortunately, he said, many people do one or a combination of those things.

He defined terrorizing as "using a child's natural fears to punish or manage him."

The conference, which concludes Wednesday, is sponsored by the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Ogden.