When my pal Mollie was 3, her mother told her that at some point, some man might come over and show her his penis. And if this ever happened, her mom said, she was to come home.
"So," Mollie says, "I think I looked with anticipation at every single guy who walked down the street for years after that. 'Is this going to be the one?' I would wonder."
As it turns out, the deed never occurred. But what interested Mollie was that after this little talk, her mom let her continue to play outside. "Why is it that back in my childhood, when the density per capita of pedophiles and perverts was the same as today, we all just carried on about our business, and today we are all acting as though it's a certainty that if we take our eyes off our kids for one second, the creep in the bushes will spring out and grab them?" Mollie asks now.
The answer is wide-ranging, but we all know that a big part of the problem is the media's nonstop pouncing on pedophile stories because these get such great ratings. The other problem is parents (and politicians) pouncing on the media that are pouncing on those stories and repeating them endlessly to one another -- at play groups, at news conferences and over the Internet -- to the point where any parent who says, "I let my child go one aisle away from me at the grocery to get the milk" is jumped on for having no heart, brains or business breeding, because obviously, what that parent did was so unsafe. Except it wasn't.
Leaving aside the rather huge question of whether getting flashed is a tragedy no child ever could recover from, let's think about this new paradigm: We are encouraged to think of our kids as being in imminent danger unless we are constantly by their sides.
Result? Well, here's one. This past week, another mom I know let her 5- and 7-year-old kids wait in the car while she ran into the grocery for two items. They were fine with this. But when she returned to the car, they were almost hysterical. Had someone tried to hurt them?
Well, no. But someone did, nonetheless. Three women had gathered around the car and shouted to the kids through the closed window that their mother was very bad for leaving them and that the women were going to call the cops!
It took days for the kids to calm down and understand that their mom was not going to jail.
What has happened to the old idea of community? What does it mean when three women gather around two children and -- instead of watching over them, keeping them safe -- act like the secret police?
I'm sure they thought they were "helping," but helping used to mean, oh, I don't know -- maybe actually helping? Perhaps lending a hand and a little sympathy for how hard it is to run errands when you've got kids? Instead, they assumed the very worst of society (creeps everywhere!) and the very worst of the mom (what a fiend!) and turned a simple everyday situation into a scary, miserable mess.
It's time for us to stop believing that children are in constant danger. It's time to stop believing that parents are criminally negligent if they're not shackled to their kids. In fact, it's time to start acting like Mollie's 1973 mom. Acknowledge that there is some evil in the world, but also understand that the answer is not to avoid the world completely. It's to be prepared and sally forth.