If there are any children outside in New York’s Southern Tier anymore it’s only because so few people still read newspapers.
No parent in her or his right mind would let a child out of the house, or even out of sight while in the house after reading the ten – ten! – fear-mongering stories splashed all over the Binghamton, N.Y Press & Sun Bulletin and its sister paper, the Elmira Star-Gazette on December 4. (Assuming, that is, that the parent made the mistake of believing the stories.)
Given the shrunken size of small city daily newspapers, it’s hard to imagine there was any room for anything else in the papers that day; apparently there was nothing but story after story sending messages like this:
Beware! Sex offenders actually live in our neighborhoods! Don’t drop your kids off anywhere! (except grandma and grandpa – maybe). A volunteer gives a gift to a preschool child – it must be “grooming”! Johnny needs to get two blocks to a youth basketball game – quick get the minivan! What? Your teacher helped you after class with your homework and no one else was in the room? Call the hotline! Your teenager is moody and having school problems? It’s sexual abuse!
The ten stories appeared under the umbrella title “Protecting our children from people we should be able to trust.” Other headlines included: “Background checks can’t replace vigilance” and “Grooming: It’s how predators have their way with you and your child.” After reading through all this it’s apparent that either the Southern Tier is a cesspool of depravity beyond comprehension – or post-Penn State paranoia has gotten way out of hand. (The papers did publish a brief op ed column I wrote in response.)
Consider a few anecdotes from the series:
● A day care center director sees a volunteer laughing and joking “excessively” with a child. The volunteer buys the child a gift – “a seemingly innocent charm.” Knowing that “this is often a predator’s ploy…the volunteer was confronted and removed from the daycare center.” The center director declares that “I’m completely convinced the child would have been a victim.”
● When Jim Norris returned to coaching a grammar school basketball team after many years he was shocked that
parents would be driving their sons two blocks or whatever and dropping them off – two blocks … I say to [an assistant coach] “What’s this all about? No one walks or rides a bike?” He says “Jim, these aren’t the old days. You have no idea who’s out on the street these days.”
● Kim and Robert Michalak of Johnson City are taking precautions:
[They] both work full-time and use the phone to stay connected with their four active sons. Each boy is required to call in his whereabouts and ETA, wherever he goes. Kim makes it her business to know their friends and the friends' parents, and has a seat on [the Johnson City] school board. "I have my ears to the wall," she said.
To help you keep your ears to the wall, there’s a 1,542-word guide to things to watch for, in adults and in your own children, reprinted verbatim from a mysterious website. Advice includes:
Emotional and behavioral signals [of sexual abuse] … can run from “too perfect” behavior to withdrawal and depression, to unexplained anger and rebellion.
Well, that certainly narrows things down. Oh, wait. The guide helpfully adds this: “Be aware that in some children there are no signs.”
Another “expert” warns that “Abusers generate situations where they are alone with the child … Babysitting, tutoring, coaching and special trips enhance isolation.” Well, yes. But they’re also standard parts of a normal childhood. Are we now to tell teachers they shouldn’t offer students help with their homework? Should guidance counselors stop meeting with children to let them seek help with personal problems?
And you know how the right-wing keeps telling us marriage is the solution to all family and societal problems? Not if you already have a child from a previous marriage. The Press & Sun Bulletin tells us that, according to one expert:
A favorite target victim is a child living with a single mother … The predator may offer to babysit or watch her children after school, and will sometimes pretend romantic interest in the mother or express a desire to be a father figure or mentor for her child. He may even marry her or move in with her. The relationship with the mother can be used as a cover for his interest in children, and her child can be used as bait to lure or gain access to other children.
So all you single moms out there: Forget about remarrying, or even dating. Better just keep men out of your lives entirely.
Some of the advice sprinkled among the stories is remarkably contradictory.
Rabbi Barbara Goldman Wartell says that at her synagogue, in the words of one story, “Everyone will also be watching everyone else, with little tolerance for odd behaviors.” But the mysterious website warns that “people who abuse children look and act just like everyone else.” So shouldn’t we, in fact, be least afraid of those who behave oddly?
Elsewhere a parent declares that “The kids are never in one-on-one [situations] unless it’s with somebody we’ve known for years.” But another story tells us that abusers are remarkably patient – “grooming” may involve years getting to know the child, and the parents, and gaining their trust. The mysterious website reminds us that “the greatest risk to children …[comes] from friends and family.” So isn’t “somebody we’ve known for years” the person to fear most?
Topping it all off was an essay from someone who is not just a helicopter parent but a fleet-of-fully-armed-Blackhawks parent. (I’m not going to name her or her eight- and six-year-old children - the kids are likely to be mortified enough in a few years) but here are some highlights:
When school friends have parties, I attend with [the children]. I know a lot of parents who drop off children at parties, in many cases because they have other children to take to other locations, or they have to run errands. [My husband] and I don't drop our children off anywhere, except for perhaps their grandparents' homes.
Perhaps? Are grandma and grandpa suspect too? Back to the column:
The same goes for baseball games and karate and gymnastics classes. Because one of us, fortunately, is able to always be there, my children never have to wait for a ride home and they know someone who loves and protects them is nearby.
I also do my best to get to know those who interact with our children. Friends, parents, coaches, teachers -- talking to them helps me ensure that my young children are surrounded by good people.
Unless, of course, they’re just especially good at “grooming.”
There are parents who can't attend every function with their children. … Some other parents just seem to be more trusting, leaving their children alone or with acquaintances much of the time. It's up to the rest of us out there -- parents, teachers, coaches, care-givers, medical professionals -- to keep an eye on all children, especially from dysfunctional homes, because they often are targeted by abusers.
But aren’t parents who start “keeping an eye on all children” exactly the ones we’re not supposed to trust?
Do I sometimes feel I'm being overprotective? Absolutely not. … Something must be working. A few weeks ago, my son was playing outside. He came running into the house and said he saw a stranger. I was so proud. …
Meanwhile, that mysterious website tells us to treat absolutely everyone as a suspect – and let them know they’re suspects the minute we meet them for the first time: “Find a way to tell the adults who care for children that you and the child are educated about child sexual abuse,” the website says. “Be that direct.”
I am not naming the site, because it’s already gotten tons of attention in the wake of Penn State and I don’t want to give it even more. (Anyone who really wants to find it can get to it via the Binghamton stories.)
But here’s why I keep calling it mysterious: I searched the site for a long time and could come up with not one name of anyone connected with the organization. No president. No executive director. No board of directors. No indication of the credentials of those offering the advice. All the e-mail contact addresses were generic – there isn’t even a media contact.
Yet in the wake of Penn State, newspapers all over America are accepting this site’s data and its advice, in the case of the Binghamton paper, reprinting it whole. That’s remarkably – um – trusting.
REAL PROBLEM, FAKE SOLUTIONS
Yes, the problem of child abuse is serious and real, and prudent precautions are in order. But don’t believe the scare numbers. For example, as I’ve noted before the claim that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be sexually abused (which is the first thing you see on the home page of the mysterious website) is based on a study with a definition of abuse that can include a 19-year-old kissing a 17-year-old goodnight after a date.
And you’d certainly never guess from the Binghamton stories that all crime in America, including child sexual abuse, has dramatically decreased in recent decades. Yes, Jim, these aren’t the old days. They’re better.
There is no way to seal off our children against all risk of molestation, any more than we can check the driving record of every adult who volunteers for the carpool. And behaving like the mother in that op ed column, and following all the other paranoid advice, creates its own dangers for children.
●Raising them to cower in their homes, afraid of everyone they meet – or running home after so much as seeing a stranger nearby.
●Destroying any opportunity to build the self-confidence, self-reliance and independence they’ll need to thrive as adults. What will our children do when we’re too old to always be there to protect them?
●Teaching them to treat normal human kindness as suspect, making it far less likely they will be able to receive such kindness – or give it.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, has crusaded against hyper-protective parenting. Long before Penn State, she wrote about the harm caused by the kind of paranoia on display in the Southern Tier in this column for The Wall Street Journal. She pointed out another danger to Milwaukee Magazine media columnist Erik Gunn:
We don't help kids if we're telling them to distrust half the population. If most people are good and your kid ever is in a dangerous situation, could they ever go to a principal at school or their father or their teacher and tell them what's going on? If nobody is to be trusted you’ve left your child without anywhere to turn.
There also is the risk of setting off another wave of panic like the “mass molestation” hysteria that destroyed the lives of hundreds of children in the 1980s amid lurid false allegations of Satanic cults lurking in day care centers.
And there’s one more risk: When every adult becomes afraid to show normal affection – when, like one teacher in Binghamton, they stop giving hugs and give taps on the shoulder instead – then children actually become easier prey for child molesters.
That’s because, as the Binghamton stories point out repeatedly, molesters target children who are denied normal affection. As child abuse researcher Dr. James Garbarino put it during the last wave of sex abuse hysteria in the 1980s:
The more you define making physical contact with kids as being extraordinary or something that makes one suspicious, the more you leave the field open to people who want to touch kids for the wrong reasons.
WHOM ARE WE REALLY “PROTECTING”?
Like so much that is done in the name of “child protection” the behavior described, and encouraged, in the Binghamton stories isn’t about protecting children at all – it’s about protecting parents.
Specifically it’s about our efforts to protect ourselves from one of the inevitable side-effects of parenthood: Worry - that constant, nagging fear that the worst will happen to our children as soon as they are out of our sight. (Interestingly, in my own experience, this does not stop when the child becomes a young adult.)
When our daughter was in college and wanted to spend a semester of her junior year studying in South Africa my wife and I worried – constantly. The easy way out would have been to say no. But we let her go, and it turned out to be one of the most important and fulfilling experiences of her life. (We remain grateful that she did not tell us about going shark diving off Cape Town until after the fact.)
At other times, I’m sure we’ve given in to fears when we shouldn’t have. But putting the children first means rising above our own fears as much as we can, whenever it’s prudent.
Anything less is not child protection, it’s adult self-indulgence.