Peadophiles and panic and parenting, oh my

A few months ago, Bean was in the suddenly-bolt-and-disappear stage: new-found speed and confidence meant that it wasn’t unusual for her to leave my side far more quickly than I could catch her. One day we were in the local chicken shop waiting for our order when she just up and ran out of the store and legged it down the footpath. Coming in the other direction was a man – I would guess he was about sixty – who very helpfully put out his arms as if to catch her as she hurtled towards him, which of course made her stop in her tracks to take a better look at this man-sized obstacle. Within seconds I was able to scoop her up, and ensure that she didn’t run out into the carpark. I looked up to express my gratitude to the man, who immediately started to apologise. ‘I wouldn’t have picked her up,’ he hurriedly assured me, ‘I just thought I might slow her down!’ and then then walked off so abruptly that I could barely tell him thank you.

It made me sad: I had assumed he was simply trying to help, and when you have a toddler sprinting right next to a busy carpark, that kind of help can be a matter of life and death. I felt sorry for this man who seemed so kind, that he would fear judgement and reprisals for showing interest in the welfare of a little girl.

He’s not the only one. My father in law, a man in his sixties, has a ten year old daughter. On a family holiday last summer, his daughter had entered a sand-castle competition and we were all down at the beach enjoying the afternoon. I asked my father in law if he had managed to take any good photos – he’s never far from his camera – and he admitted that he hadn’t taken anything. ‘There are too many other kids here in their bathers,’ he explained ‘if people see an old man like me taking photos, they’ll get upset.’ He’s been questioned before about his ‘interest’ in his own daughter by people who assumed he was someone other than her parent so, unfortunately, his fear of censure wasn’t unfounded.

I completely understand the impulse parents have to protect their children from any potential threat, even an unlikely one. No one is under any obligation to accept help from a stranger, or to allow strangers to talk to our touch their children. But fearing the father at the beach or the man at the shops for no reason other than the fact that they are men? These are not protective, helpful behaviours (unless other sound reasons, even if they are mainly instinctual, give cause for suspicion or alarm). We need to keep our children safe but knee-jerk fear and prejudice does not equal exercising judgement.

I have no doubt that my husband would stop to assist a child in need, and I would hate to think how he would feel if his motives were called into question. But this is not just about lamenting the hurt feelings of decent men – after all, decent people don’t wish to contribute to anxiety or distress and hence many men have become accustomed to keeping their distance from other people’s children. These two stories posted on Free Range Kids both attest to this.

The real losers, when we succumb to ‘peodophile panic’, are not only men in the community, but our children. When my daughter is lost in a shopping centre, or injured at the playground, or in need of the physical reassurance that a hug from an adult can bring whilst away from my care (at school, perhaps), I want the decent people around her to step in. I want someone, anyone kind, whatever their age or gender, to come to her aid. When I was a child my parents could count on that happening: adults were accustomed to watching out for other children, especially in the rural area where I lived. Can I count on it? Perhaps, sometimes, I hope. But the reality is that the number of benign adults willing to interact with children on any level is reducing, and not only because of changing attitudes to children and families but also due to fear of being labelled a ‘pervert’ of some kind. And when kind and trustworthy adults are less likely to intervene? Less likely to consider watching out for all children to be part of their role as a citizen within a community? That leaves children with only their own parents and designated carers – and even perhaps adults who are not so benign – to interact with. It leaves them with fewer meaningful exchanges with people outside of their immediate family and, importantly, it leaves them with less protection. It also potentially leaves parents more isolated, with less help (and, as Arwyn argues so strongly here, we need help!)

If you’re one of the vast majority of human beings who have only good intent towards children and you see my Little Bean heading towards danger and you want to reach out to her to keep her safe? Please, be my guest. She and I will both be grateful.


Filed under Motherhood and Parenting

26 responses to “Peadophiles and panic and parenting, oh my

  1. Yeah. I wrote on this recently, and commented on one of the FRK posts (which was not taken well).

    It’s interesting at FRK much of the discussion was about the moms being the problem.

    Alexis from the studioist & I were chatting about this. She wrote me: “I agree that men who are not a threat to kids need to keep ‘putting themselves out there’. When men are more visible parents and caregivers, when they are less anomalous, they will be perceived less as having an unusual and possibly unhealthy interest in children. I also think that men need to take responsibility for Stranger Danger’s perpetuation through the male-dominated MSM; you don’t see women deciding to write and produce entire programs around the possibility of child-rape (Dr. Phil / Dateline NBC). This is not just a mom problem and calling it otherwise is sexism at its finest.”

    Also: as I wrote in my blog post, my husband DOES put himself out there, and has had predominantly positive experiences. I asked him his advice to men who want to do the same and he said, “Try it for two months, but not to prove the point. Try it for the right reasons, to help.” FWIW.

    • Thanks Kelly, I’ll check out your link later.

      I also think that men need to take responsibility for Stranger Danger’s perpetuation through the male-dominated MSM; you don’t see women deciding to write and produce entire programs around the possibility of child-rape (Dr. Phil / Dateline NBC). This is not just a mom problem and calling it otherwise is sexism at its finest

      I wholeheartedly agree with that. Mainstream media perpetuates ‘peadophile panic’ sensationalist and irresponsible reporting and gruesome drama programmes. This perpetuation of excessive fear (because I do think that some anxiety is probably a normal and necessary part of parenting) is really damaging. ‘Stranger danger’ talk was around when I was a kid, but but not to the extreme degree that it is today. And I completely agree that it isn’t just mothers who need to take responsibility for this – fathers, and other men in the community, must too. Telling mothers over and over to be afraid for their child’s safety and then telling them they’re wrong to be afraid? Not helpful. I didn’t intend to do that with this blog post but perhaps I could have been clearer about that, because I really do sympathise with the fears parents have.

      The flip-side to this is, of course, we are now more aware of child sex abuse and the potential for harm, and we are more alert. I suppose the hope is that this greater awareness, and greater willingness to talk about sex abuse rather than covering it up – translates into appropriate vigilance, so that children can be better protected. Unfortunately though, I think what’s happened is that the risk of stranger abduction (still extremely rare) has been grossly exaggerated in our imaginations, whilst the real risk – people known to the child – can still go unchecked.

    • “Unfortunately though, I think what’s happened is that the risk of stranger abduction (still extremely rare) has been grossly exaggerated in our imaginations, whilst the real risk – people known to the child – can still go unchecked.”

      Right. Exactly. I’m not sure how much safer kids are at home and with abusers (like teachers, friends, relatives) as a result of the Stranger Danger trope prodded at by the MSM.

      I also have read in several articles the (generalized gist) that telling kids to “always get a grownup” and be supervised and have grownup authority all the time makes them MORE susceptible to abuse and exploitation.

      There are other casualties besides our children growing up afraid of everything and feeling a lot of dread, anxiety, and paralysis (as many adults at FRK will cite as a result of their upbringings). I’ll spare you yet another link re: a stranger calling the cops on my unattended but perfectly-fine son (because everyone has a cell phone these days and it’s easier to call authorities then to check into the situation) and the resultant CPS investigation. Blah blah.

      Also, I want to add I’m not one of those at FRK constantly dissing “helicopter parents” (which is code, a lot of the times, for “moms”) because honestly, most people are trying to do the best they can and are unduly influenced by a media that does not have our best interests at heart.

      I don’t know if you read at FRK often but I do. There are lots of great things to be said for the “movement” but I also find some problematic views purported and I’m always excited to talk about what I read there – if you’re interested.

      Again, thank you for your post!

    • I read FRK semi-regularly. I think it’s great for getting people to think about these issues but I also find some of it problematic (particularly the panic about kids getting fatter, for reasons obvious to anyone who reads my blog). I don’t often read the comments though, and I suspect that’s where more interesting ideas come out.

    • Yeah the OMG FATTIEZ stuff is annoying. I’ve written Lenore personally and she’s expressed awareness of my complaints and her posts seem to have softened on that line.

      But as you are prolly aware, you have to go to special places online NOT to be subjected to FAT RAMPAGE and how it’s a sign of End Times, etc. etc.

  2. Agreed. Also, automatically suspecting men of such intentions harms not just working parenting but working society in general. For example, I really feel for male primary school teachers.

    • Yes, it is a shame that jobs like primary school/kindergarten teacher and childcare worker are perhaps made even more unappealing to men because of these problems.

  3. T.A.

    So very very true. It’s sad we’ve become such a suspicious untrusting society. The mainstream media has a lot to answer for in this area, due to their tendency to sensationalise danger and focus only on bad news in an effort to sell more.

  4. Angela

    Being a victim of childhood molestation by the hands of a complete stranger, I can understand the fear. Is it exaggerated, though? Not in my eyes. I was taken from my elementary school less than 200ft from my house. I was nine. When the police caught him he confessed to three acts of sexual abuse of a child. Me, another girl, and three boys in another park. Each crime progressively getting worse than the last.

    I lived in a small town. You would think this horror story would have survived long enough to save some of the other “no-name” abductions, rapes, and molestations, but it didn’t and these things keep happening.

    The stereotypical pedophile doesn’t exist. You will not know just by looking at a person. Sure, it might be the creepy ice cream truck driver, but it could also be the clean-cut person next door. The only way to keep our children safe is to embrace that knowledge and do what we can to protect them.

    Now that I’m a mother I take great care to ensure my son’s safety. I know it’s impossible to watch over your kids at all times, but there are some things that you can do it keep the unthinkable from happening. Check who is watching, teaching, or anyone with a big role in your kid’s lives. Most schools do background checks on their teachers, not all. Ask and ask if everyone passed. Yes, some schools will hire despite (private schools, mainly). Keep an eye out in public situations or bring a group. Nothing better than a group of kids and parents at the park looking out for each other. Lastly, and most importantly, always be aware of your surroundings and trust your instinct. You’ll be surprised how often it’ll save you.

    • Angela, it’s terrible that you were abducted and assaulted. I am so sorry.

      I think your perspective is important because it is vital to acknowledge that the danger, though slight, is very real and very serious. And also, I thank you for your comment because I think it really does illustrate that feeling very protective of our children is normal, and that some people have reason to perhaps feel more anxious. Those feelings are to be expected and no one should be shamed for them – as Kelly says in her comment here, it’s not helpful to rant about ‘helicopter parents’ when parents are normally just doing their best.

      Where I live, all teachers and people who are working with children in a paid or volunteer capacity (coaches etc.) do have to have a current police check. This of course only filters people with a previous conviction though.

      Keeping our children safe is a complex task, I believe, and it does involve trusting them as well as other people. And to a degree, it involves good luck. I choose to believe that most people are decent – I hope that appropriate vigilance, not blanket distrust, will give my daughter the best protection.

  5. Everything you said! Yes! Thank you for saying it!

  6. I think the ‘stranger danger’ panic has come about because it allows people to avoid an ugly truth, which is that the vast majority of children who experience sexual abuse are abused by someone they know, usually a family member.

    It is actually quite rare for a child to be molested by a complete stranger – they are statistically far more at risk from their own fathers, uncles, grandfathers and brothers. It makes me sad that there is still so much denial about this.

    The paedophile panic is just another part of that denial in my opinion.

    • Yes, I think there’s definitely some truth to that – it is easier to direct anger and fear towards the ‘monsters’ that end up on the news than to think about the fact that most people who abuse children are relatives or family friends, people in a position of trust. I don’t think it’s helpful to cast ‘peadophiles’ as monsters – abusers are people, all kinds of people. I really think that it’s virtually impossible to guarantee protection from the (mercifully rare) stranger predator without taking unreasonable measures, and so why make that our goal? Why not concentrate on trusting our children, teaching them about their bodies and their right to personal space, giving them the vocabulary to talk about anatomy and (potentially inappropriate) touch, and being sensitive listeners so that we can feel confident that they will tell us if something is awry? I’m not saying that the onus must always be on the child to protect hirself, there is a role for parental and community vigilance, but I think teaching self care, self awareness and bodily autonomy are ways to give our kids tools. Much more productive and protective than shunning/suspecting every man they see in public.

    • When I see conversations like this, I sometimes begin to wonder if I was the only weirdo in the world who somehow _attracted_ child-molesters. Abducted and held for days somewhere? No, but I was exposed to repeatedly, wanked at, sexually harassed, frotted on public transport, and so forth. Then I realise – no, I don’t think I’m that unusual; it’s just that people have this particular image of What Child Molestations Is in their brains that they have somehow edited out all these other ‘smaller’ molestations. I felt like these things were somehow my fault. I never told anyone about them. I felt ashamed. I was never told they were wrong. I was never warned that they could happen, reassured that it wouldn’t be my fault. No one ever explained to me how to deal with such a situation, who to tell, how to tell.

      “The risk of stranger molestation is TINY” feels like a slap in the face to me, every time. It sure didn’t feel tiny at the time.

      I wholeheartedly agree with what people are saying here about encouraging child self-care, group-care, intuition, and tools; I just disagree with this particular part of the strategy.

    • Thanks for your comment lauredhel.

      I would never wish to minimise or erase someone else’s experience and I’m really sorry for doing that here.

      You’ve hit on something really important – street harrassment/frotting/flashing is molestation/assault/abuse too and it happens all the freakin’ time. It never happened to me as a child but it has happened to me as an adult. Yet, I don’t feel that saying ‘a woman is more likely to be raped by someone she knows’ is a denial that street harrassment and those other things happen.

      A child is more likely to be abused by a relative or family friend than anyone else: but that’s not to say that there are no risks, no other offenders out there. I hadn’t really considered how I might be glossing over that point, or how doing so might be problematic and even hurtful.

  7. Gosh sorry Angela, I wrote my comment before I had properly read yours.

    I am in no way seeking to dismiss or minimise the enormity of what happened to you. I am terribly sorry that you went through that horrendous experience.

  8. I have two stories to share that demonstrate how good men are made feel uncomfortable because of societal fear.

    My boss has two daughters. When his youngest was just a toddler, he had a delightful recording of his two girls giggling hysterically as his ringtone on his phone. Whenever it went off, everyone in the office looked up and smiled, or commented on what a lovely sound it was. Until one day an otherwise decent, respectful woman said “It makes you sound like a paedophile.” He changed it that night, and we’ve never heard it since.

    A few years ago, I was dating a man who was a single Dad to three children. Two boys, aged 10 and 6, and an 8 year old daughter. We were at a fireworks event in a high rise office, with a fantastic view and an enclosed environment that the kids could run around in. His daughter had been sitting on my lap, cuddling me and playing with my hair for hours, and nobody said anything, when it was clear that she was not my child as she called me by my first name. She moved closer to her father to look at something he was tinkering with, and said “Stroke my hair please Daddy.” He was standing with her beside him, talking to me while idly patting and stroking her head, when I suddenly noticed his expression change, and he said “Honey, you want to go sit with Kath (me)?” Later when she went off to play, I asked him what the deal was and he responded that the people sitting further down the table had started to nudge and comment towards him and his daughter. When he was patting her HEAD, his OWN daughter, which they knew because they’d heard her repeatedly call him Daddy.

    It totally dismayed me that he had to send her to sit with me, who these people knew wasn’t her mother, because they made him uncomfortable about having ANY physical contact with his own child.

    Is it any wonder that kids are growing up without decent bonds to their fathers and other male relatives?

    • July

      When my daughter was a baby, a few times my husband and I brought her along to go clothes shopping as a family. (Now, of course, she is a toddler, so we try to avoid shopping with her at all costs lol) I remember him asking me to PLEASE take her whenever he decided to go into a different store or dressing room. He said “I can’t take her into the dressing room with me, I’m a man!” and I just thought he was being silly and/or trying to get out of dealing with a baby in the dressing room. After reading this I am starting to understand the problem is not just him! Wow. Thanks for opening my eyes.

    • Shopping is often a minefield for Dad’s with small kids. Dad’s are often not allowed in baby rooms, face issues with taking small kids to the toilet, have issues around change rooms etc.

      We do need to create a safe environment, but we also need to remember that sometimes Dad’s are responsible for things like shopping and being primary carers for kids. As my ex found, people were often REALLY shocked to hear he was a single Dad with custody of his three kids under 10.

    • sannanina

      It is admittedly not totally relevant, but honestly… this just seems so weird to me. I would say that people here (in Germany) show some “stranger danger” panic though it seems less than what you are describing (I could be wrong though – I don’t have kids myself and I don’t have that much contact with people who do). However, I am 31 years old and when I little kid my dad actually sometimes got in the bathtub with me (and yes, we were both naked). Those are some of my best childhood memories, actually, (my dad used his feet as puppets with quite distinct personalities… it was a lot of fun) and I really cannot see anything creepy about it… there was just no sexual context to it whatsoever.

      I am also wondering if teaching kids to avoid either physical contact or nakedness even around family members from a very early age on doesn’t contribute to body anxiety… I got uncomfortable being naked around close family members and certainly around strangers soon enough.

      Oh, and I also walked to school on my own from first grade onwards. (Actually, I learned a few years back that my mum was secretly following me the first few times to check if I was navigating traffic safely.) As I said, that was a few years ago, but the elementary school-age kids in our street still roam the neighborhood on their own.

    • I read a book and in part the author said that fathers who suddenly stop nurturing their daughter’s bodies around or slightly before puberty do so at risk: daughters often experience this as shaming in some way and are very confused. The author said unfortunately there are plenty of teen boys and adult men who are happy to step in and serve as that father-love figure.

      Now… I am not saying preteen sexuality is a bad thing, at all, but the author was talking about girls who are confused and shamed and shunned and vulnerable (teen pressures and peer “education” about sex can be pretty horrid) and their father is, essentially, abandoning them right when they need him most to stand up for their emerging womanhood (if they identify as woman), etc. This really resonated with me as I went through some very similar issues as a teen girl. I won’t write about it here but suffice to say my otherwise kind and loving and amazing father really did “abandon” me at puberty in some subtle but elemental ways and I truly believe I would have been better off had he stayed with me.

      Obviously this is a very careful conversation to go about because, fathers and stepfathers are the number one culprit for sex abuse. However most fathers have only good intentions but in their fear and anxieties let their daughters down.

      About three years ago my husband was suddenly not wanting to help our daughter wash her vulva at bath time (she was still young enough to need help). I read him that passage of the book and he got over it. I fully expect him to participate in the care of both our children’s bodies just as I do, with sensitivity given to everyone’s feelings. He had gotten the cultural message he should stop touching his daughter and he was just going with that, but I don’t think it was a good thing to proceed with, unexamined.

    • One thing I have learnt from all of my German friends is that you are all so much more relaxed and matter-of-fact about your bodies in Germany than we are in Australia. Generally speaking, body image is far better amongst the Germans I know than any of the Australians that I do.

      Bodies seem to be less… taboo in Germany than they are here.

  9. It is dreadful to meet children too scared to speak because they haven’t been introduced – ‘stranger’ and ‘danger’ having come to mean exactly the same. It is sad.

    And it’s dreadful that my sons are growing up in a world where they’re not able to be spontaneously friendly with any child they happen to meet in any situation, for fear of upsetting the child or parents. Boys/Men are not learning to be welcoming, comfortable, fun people around children. How able/enabled will that leave them (probably not my own, now I’m taking it to this point) when they become fathers? How natural will it feel to be natural, and cuddly, and so on?

    • I just want to say here, not because you’ve implied that you think this but because you simply reminded me of it… I do think that sometimes children don’t want to talk to strangers simply because they are shy, or they don’t feel like it. That’s okay too. I don’t think anyone should feel personally insulted that a young child doesn’t want to say hello to them, or especially if they won’t submit to being touched! But, I agree, it’s a shame when kids won’t interact with people they haven’t met at all, out of fear.

      I was at a park with Bean recently and two older children – about six and four – had gotten themselves stuck on the top of a piece of climbing equipment. I noticed after a while that the girl was becoming quite distressed and her younger brother was threatening to jump down. She obviously feared he would hurt himself, but was too frightened to jump herself or find another way down. I was standing just a couple of metres away, and she obviously didn’t feel comfortable asking me to help her – so it wasn’t until I actually noticed what was happening that I was able to offer to help her down. It did occur to me, I admit, whilst lifting these children that I might have to explain myself to their parent if one appeared! Afterwards I felt a bit sad – it should be easier for kids to ask other adults to assist them (in a highly public place like a busy playground!), and easier for adults to render that assistance.

    • That’s exactly what I feel. Once I saw a girl (12-ish?) hurt her leg fairly badly at a playground, able to limp home, and I was walking to my car in the same direction so asked her if she was ok, even, ‘Do you live quite near?’ It was only afterwards that I realised I’d scared her because I was acting like a dangerous stranger. (This is when mine were very little and I hadn’t picked up on this phenomenon.) Then I wished I could apologise for scaring her.

      About the shy thing, I’d forgotten that, and of course shyness is natural and not personal – the instance I’m thinking of was a child frightened when I said hello, and congratulated by her mother for remembering to be careful of the stranger. Surely the rule should include that it’s ok if your mum is talking to the person you yourself don’t know?! (And that 12yo wasn’t shy, it was definitely a different kind of fear that struck me as odd before it occurred to me what was actually going through her mind.)

  10. Liz

    Just came across your blog today and I love what you have to say. Acceptance is so hard but so essential. People have been telling me my whole life “You’re so skinny! How do you do it?” I don’t do anything. I don’t like my body much. When I tell people I was actually happiest with my body after my 2nd child was born, when I weighed about 15 lbs more than I do now, they look at me with their mouths agape. I’ll be visiting often!

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