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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Balance and the Culture of Fear

My watchword for personal growth and navigation lately seems to be balance, and the past few months have given me a lot to think about regarding protecting my children.

Let it be said that I recognize that there are real and tangible threats to anyone's safety. Bad things do sometimes happen to good people, often for no reason.

Let it also be said that statistically, many of these bad things are unlikely to happen.

And finally, let me preface by saying that I grew up during the age of the After-School Special. We children were constantly drilled with the idea that the world was a threatening and dangerous place. All strangers wanted to abduct and molest us, or pressure us to use illicit drugs which would instantly destroy us. All Halloween candy had the potential to contain poison or roofies or razor blades. We were taught about Stranger Danger and trained to "say no! then go! and tell!"

I don't want my kids to grow up in fear like I did. I firmly believe that despite the few bad apples, most people are basically decent and friendly folk who do not wish to cause harm. I encourage my children to get to know the adults in our community with whom we interact (librarians, cashiers and waitresses, the garbage collector, etc.) and they watch me smile and say a neighborly hello to strangers we encounter on our outings. I would much rather they learn to be outgoing and comfortable in their environment than to grow up eyeing everyone with suspicion of hostile intent. Caution is wise. Blind universal mistrust, however, can cause unnecessary negativity for everyone.

On a related note, I also wish to encourage as much independence in my children as they are prepared to and capable of and eager to handle. I scaffold, I guide, but ultimately I want them to have the confidence to do things for themselves. Isn't that part of the learning/growing/maturation process? I still shudder at the memory of a certain 10-year-old I knew who blithely stood by while his grandmother not only tied his shoes but actually put them, and his socks, on him. No way. My kids will do for themselves (as appropriate). This usually requires feeling comfortable in their environment.

So. Here are the series of events that happened in my little world.

Event A: I went for a run at our local community center, and took my 5yo and my then-12yo stepson with me. It is a small and relatively open building. I toured both children around, showing them the locations of the front desk, the youth lounge, the restrooms and water fountains, and finally the gym where they would be free to play ball while I ran. I also introduced them to the two staff members who were sitting at the front desk and made sure that the kids recognized them as Friendly and Helpful Adults. The 12yo went downstairs to play ball. The 5yo followed, but also occasionally came up to the running track (directly above the basketball courts, where I had a constant view of the kids) to happily jog after me. He did not, to my observation, disturb any other patrons.

Eventually he had to pee.

I escorted him down the short hallway to the restrooms (just to the side of the front desk). He insisted on going into the BOYS room, alone (instead of the GIRLS room with Mom). I was hesitant because of his age, but the door had been propped open and I was sure that I'd be able to hear anything. I agreed (with plenty of Mom-admonishments to Wash Your Hands...WITH SOAP) and stood by the door waiting for him. He emerged unscathed and proud, then made a request. He wanted to get a drink from the fountain and insisted that I return to my run and he would find his own way back. Well, why not. In a large, well-lit building, why wouldn't I let my son navigate a hallway All By Himself? I went back to the track, and he joined me less than a minute later.

When we were leaving the building, I was confronted by one of the staff members from the front desk, who angrily read me the riot act for letting my kids "run wild", and how he was "not a babysitter" and how I should be more careful, etc. etc. He was hostile and unfriendly and my 5yo ended up in tears, worried that he was in trouble. I left that night feeling attacked and resentful. And I spent the rest of the night questioning things and second-guessing and replaying the event. Was he just a grouchy old man who hates children? Was I (gasp!) an irresponsible mother who had put my child in danger?

Event B: A few days later, there was an incident in the municipal building across the street. This is also one of our frequent haunts, as it houses the public library. An adult man followed an (otherwise unaccompanied) 7yo boy into the public restroom in the common area of the building (just outside the main entrance to the library) and molested him.


Now I was freaked out. That was OUR place. Our library! And something so awful, and so close actually COULD have happened to us. OMG OMG OMG.

I went into Super Worry mode. Sure, I don't want my kids to fear universally. But trusting universally may not serve them any better. So how do I find that BALANCE??

I turned to a book: Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (And Parents Sane) by Gavin De Becker. Although this book is full of frightening anecdotes, its overall message is less alarmist than recommending caution and trusting one's instincts. It also provides plenty of statistics to help one sort out the likelihood of threats. (A familiar person is a more likely predator than a stranger, for example.)

I have also found a great touchstone of sanity at FreeRangeKids, a wonderful site--founded and maintained by Lenore Skenazy--which advocates for "sane parenting", including freedom for children to explore their environment responsibly. She even had a recent post about the public potty issue, with plenty of reader comments...including my own story from above.

After all of the recent soul-searching, I think I'm back where I started. Which is reassuring. Despite an Actual Event, I still believe that most people are not predatory and still believe in allowing my children as much freedom as they are prepared for, comfortable with, and as seems reasonable.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right to stay in the same place you were, even after the 2nd incident. I think especially because, yes, these things CAN happnen. But you were RIGHT there with your son when he went to the bathroom- with the door open. Would the other little boy have been molested if he had a parent waiting right where the molester could see him or her? I think part of the reason for the fear is all the uninvolved parents- the ones who are always working and never around to supervise anything. Where their 5 year old has a cell phone to reach them at work, because they are not home when these things happen. I am sure it CAN happen to a child with a more involved parent- but I am of the belief that a child with parents who are THERE are much better off. The fear of what's "out there" I think partially comes from the fact that so many parents are no where near to help or protect from these dangers.

    And the guy at the health club or where ever you were was WAY out of line.