Stranger Danger

I’m driving down a busy street when Natalie starts screaming. At this point I’ve discovered my daughter’s wailing doesn’t always constitute an emergency so I keep going. But when her cries hit migraine inducing decibel levels I start to worry. Is she strapped in too tight? Something in her eye? Pulling her own hair again? Better check it out.

Since pulling over on a commercial thoroughfare is a recipe for disaster, I hook a right onto a residential street and park in front of a house. A boy about seven years old is standing in front of the driveway while his father washes his car. When I get out of my car the father runs over, picks his son up, and whisks him into the garage. Jesus.

Undeterred, I open the rear passenger door and my daughter breaks into a smile. Little faker. She was just jonesing for Pops. I knew I should have bought her that jumper that read, “When I cry I get stuff.” But I check her straps anyway, scan the backseat for hazards and then pat her little head. “We’ll be home soon, honey,” I say.

As I climb back behind the wheel the father in the driveway is watching me like a hawk. So much for the universal brotherhood of daddydom. To be fair, from his vantage point he can’t see I have a baby in the car, but his protective impulse strikes me as paranoid. The odds of a stranger snatching your child in broad daylight are astronomically low. Do I look like a kidnapper? White slaver? A strung out junkie trying to find kiddie kidneys for the Chinese organ market? To make sure I look in the rear view mirror. A pudgy but well groomed middle-aged daddy stares back at me.

“Paranoid asshole,” I mutter under my breath. Then I smile, wave cheerily at the man and drive away.

If I’m honest, part of me is hurt that someone thinks I might hurt a child. A few weeks ago I was walking Felix in my neighborhood when I came across two little girls about four and seven years old sitting on their front steps. The older girl asked, “Can I pet your doggie?” Since Felix is super friendly I said sure. I’ve let lots of kids pet him. But before the girl took two steps a female voice from within the house screamed, “Get back in here!”

“My mommy won’t let me pet your dog,” the girl said,

“You have to listen to your mother,” I said. “Go back inside.” As I walked away I heard the screen door open and the mother say, “What were you thinking? That man could have taken your sister!” I’ve lived in this neighborhood for eleven years. I’m not an unknown quantity. And this lady thought I was a kidnapper too? Wow.

I actually feel sorry for those children. While I’m all for protecting kids, I think the above mentioned parents are teaching their tykes the world is always a dangerous place. That’ll hurt them in the long run. The more reflective part of me wonders if the adults had bad experiences which powered their behavior, but I just figure they’re paranoid.

I know a mother who constantly pours over sex offender registries, saw the police shoo an old man enjoying his lunch by the playground off the premises and overheard a father explain the modus operandi of serial killers to his grade-schooler. I’m not denying evil exists or advocating a pollyanna view of reality, but I think a lot of this “stranger danger” insanity is more about people’s inability to handle their anxiety over the world’s perils than it has to do with childrens’ welfare.

Am I being too harsh? Just today a kid stabbed a bunch of his high-school classmates and we all remember the unspeakable atrocity of Newtown. But I’ve been working in mental health on and off since 1990 and I can safely say the person most likely to abuse, injure, molest or kill a child are their own parents or a close family member. I’ve seen it happen in households rich and poor, educated and uneducated. But let’s face it, that doesn’t sell papers. It’s the boogeyman in the bushes that drives ratings in our 24/7 news world. And despite all the terrible things that have happened, your child’s school is safer than it was when we were children.

When my Dad was little he was taught to “duck and cover” in case the Russians dropped the big one. Now we have kindergartners doing active shooter drills. Most of the horrors we see on the news are the result of people with untreated or under-treated mental illness. If you’re worried about wackos doing in your kids, or you for that matter, petition your congressman to raise taxes and fund mental health programs. The psych unit where I work part-time is overwhelmed because the state’s been closing psychiatric hospitals when they should be building them. Nah, that costs money. That’s “Big Government.” We’d just rather talk about how unsafe we all feel while funding for programs to keep parents from hurting their kids is siphoned away to bail out car companies that sell cars that kill people and subsidize coal companies that contaminate our drinking water. Instead of expelling a schoolkid for making a gun out of his thumb and forefinger, send those clowns to prison.

Trust me. I’m not blasé about my child’s safety. I will teach her what to look out for at an appropriate pace appropriate for her age. I’ve seen a lot of dangerous people over the years. Just yesterday I had a patient describe how he’d cut my throat. I’m not ignorant of danger but I will not raise Natalie in a world where she’s worried everyone’s a possible predator. I didn’t grow up like that. Neither will she. And remember this, when people are screaming how unsafe you are, the odds are good they’re profiting off your fear.

Getting on the highway, I suddenly remember I have to pick up frozen kale (Yuk) at Trader Joes. Luckily for me, I snag at spot in the store’s crowded parking lot. Leaving Natalie in the car, I open the trunk, take out the carriage and unfold it. Then, just as I’m about to unlatch the car seat, a woman in a mini van misses the carriage by an inch as she races into a newly opened spot by the front door. Of course, she’s on her cell phone.

Those are the strangers you have to look out for.


Comments

Stranger Danger — 8 Comments

  1. Steve – I agree with what you are saying, but as a parent of 4 I have to say that I just couldn’t live with the consequences of knowing that there was something I could have done but didn’t if anything happened to one of my kids.
    I think back fondly to the days when I would go out in the morning and come home late in the afternoon and no-one would have thought of calling the cops. Don’t think I could do that today – not because I think that life is more dangerous, just because I’m not prepared to take that chance.
    It is a shame.

  2. Hey Steve, my husband has had super paranoia about someone snatching our kid up. I used to send our son next door with food for our elderly neighbors every other day when he was 4 and 5 years old because I thought it gave him a sense of independence. My husband had fits thinking that someone in that 20 feet of space would grab him. Now, our son is 8 and I send him around the block to visit his BFF without much thought. You’re right that the vast majority of bad things happening to kids is from someone they know and the stranger danger is mostly from under and untreated mentally off balance people.

  3. You know, I’ve thought about it some more and I’ve realised something… if something happened to my kid – no matter how much I tried to protect them – I just don’t know how I would handle it. There would always be something I could find that I should have done differently.
    Oh well.

  4. “I can safely say the person most likely to abuse, injure, molest or kill a child are their own parents or a close family member.”

    I’ve read this in the paper; the experts agree. Stranger danger is a small threat compared to friends, relatives, neighbors.

    I almost want to blame the parents: in this world today we feel pretty powerless; so maybe we overreact to unlikely but horrible crimes that we _can_ prepare for. It makes us feel like we do something.

    But I also think it’s the media, perhaps almost entirely the media whipping the populace into a constant state of fear. Spectacular stranger crimes that happen two states over are reported as if they took place next door. Constantly. This has got to affect parents; and frankly, there’s a cottage industry in parental fear these days, sounding the alarm daily. And when you don’t know your neighbors well, when people are so mobile that strangers are around almost 24/7, it’s an easy sell.

    Some years back, a co-worker told me that her eldest — a six year old, was not allowed out of the front yard by himself, even to walk to neighbors on the same side of the street. And she lived in about the safest neighborhood of the safest big city in America. At six, I was on the next block. “You hear all these things,” she told me.

    Yes, you hear all these things. Great post.

  5. I too feel sorry for kids raised in that sort of environment, it deprives them of the very life that their parents claim they are trying to preserve. The way I think of it, nearly anything worth doing in life involves some inherent risk, you can mitigate those risks and take precautions but if those precautions prevent you from living life then they are just as bad if not worse than a premature end as that sort of death is drawn out. As some hack of a writer once wrote “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” Letting fear define your life is cowardly.

    Also while I sympathize with parents that default to over protective, hovering actions I have 2 questions

    1) The rational I hear is always “I couldn’t live with myself if something happened…” That sounds like a very selfish reason to deny someone a fulfilling life by sheltering them and raising them paranoid and afraid of the world, and

    2) Don’t you think, by depriving them of gradual and real life experiences especially in their formative years where they are still somewhat under your and society’s wings is harmful? How else will they figure out how to conduct themselves as adults if they do not learn and grow as children, just like how animals play to learn how to survive so do humans. I submit that by depriving them of that opportunity and measured independence, you raise human beings who are far less capable and far more at risk of the evils that we as adults sometimes have to deal with.

  6. “Those are the strangers you have to look out for.”

    Yes, the ones in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, any its mysterious “Forget How To Drive” field…

  7. Hi Steve, you sound exactly like a Free Range style parent! There is a whole movement espousing EXACTLY what you just described. Check it out at http://www.freerangekids.com. Lots of good discussion and ideas there. Like-minded families abound. I am not affiliated with the site, just a reader and someone who agrees with their ideas.

  8. So glad to see you writing again! Four updates in three weeks – I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed regular updates from you! Speaking as a father of two boys under the age of 3, your insights are spot-on (in this and other updates).

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