Nothing to Fear but Overreactions

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve read stories about people having ID numbers etched into their children’s teeth, and not letting their kids play outside, and those Amber Alerts make it seem as though hundreds of children are being abducted and murdered every day. Like most parents, I want to protect my kids. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I think we’ve gone overboard. Am I wrong?

A: Nope, I think you’re absolutely right. The reality is that, factoring out the threat of nuclear war, the world is not any more dangerous for children today than it was a few generations ago. But thanks in large part to the media, which repeats stories over and over and over, too many parents are in a panic. And our children are paying the price.

When I was as young as eight, growing up in Oakland, California, I took city busses all over town to visit friends, grandparents, even go bowling. And all the other kids I knew were doing the same thing. But I’m pretty sure that if I put my 10-year old on a bus by herself today, I’d get arrested.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions to keep our kids safe. Of course we should. We should teach them to look both ways before they cross streets, wear helmets when they ride their bikes or skateboards, wear seatbelts in the car, and not take candy from strangers. And before sending our kids off on a playdate, we should try to make sure that the adults in charge are responsible and trustworthy. But we can’t protect them from every possible danger. Not letting our kids explore their neighborhood (or even their own backyards), not allowing them to get a few bumps and bruises once in a while, and filling their heads with stories of dangerous strangers lurking behind every tree, we’re keeping them from developing the independence, self-confidence, and ability to made decisions that they’ll need as they stumble toward adulthood.

Part of the problems is that we’re way too concerned with what other people think. Let me give you a few examples. A recent study of more than 3,000 children and parents found that while half of parents played outside at least once a day when they were young, only 23% would allow their own children to do the same. Why? Well, 53% of those parents said they were worried about traffic. And 40% said they were concerned about “stranger danger.” I get both of those, even though the fears are exaggerated. But the statistic that really got me was that 30% of the parents who keep their kids cooped up indoors feel that they’ll be harshly judged by their neighbors if they let the kids play outside unsupervised.
Another recent study was even more horrifying—and tragic. This one talked about how a growing number of daycares have banned physical contact between caregivers and children out of fear that the adults might be accused of molesting the youngsters. We’re talking about toddlers and younger. In some cases, the daycare staff is being told that cuddling small children is bad because it could make them too dependent. What a crock.
Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes around small children knows how much they’re comforted by physical touch. Many experts say that depriving kids of being cuddled or held or, gasp, kissed, increases their stress levels and can have serious, long-term negative consequences for their development. On a less-scientific level, it seems positively cruel.

Exercising Caution

Dear Mr. Dad, I was changing my two year old daughter’s diaper after she’d come home from spending the day with her father (he and I are not together). She was touching herself and I told her to stop because her hands were dirty. She then said that “daddy touches me here.” I am completely freaking out. Why would he do something like that to her? Should I call the police?

A: I know I’m going to take a lot of flak for this, but the first thing you need to do is take a big, deep breath and calm down. Your natural reaction to hearing what your daughter said is to jump into action and do everything you possibly can to protect her—what parent wouldn’t? Ordinarily, I’d suggest erring on the side of caution and immediately making the call to the authorities. But before you pick up the phone, you need to be absolutely sure you know exactly what’s going on.

Taking your daughter to the emergency room for a cough that turns out to be nothing more than a cold may cost you a few extra co-pay dollars and leave you feeling a little embarrassed. But making a child abuse report for something that that turns out to be a misunderstanding is completely different. Many family law attorneys call a child abuse accusation the nuclear bomb of divorce cases, and with good reason: Once you start the process there is no going back. Ever. I’ve done a lot of research and writing on accusations of child abuse and I’ve seen too many cases where unfounded (and sometimes deliberately false) accusations have completely destroyed the lives of the accused.

As you know, diaper changing involves touching a child in a way that in any other circumstance would be completely inappropriate. And while no one wants to believe that a child would lie about something as serious as abuse, the fact is that you’re dealing with a two-year old. Kids that age still have trouble differentiating fact from fiction and are notoriously unreliable witnesses.

So what should you do? Start with checking in with your gut. Do you honestly have any reason to believe that your daughter’s father would abuse her? The answer is probably No. But don’t leave it at that—we’ve all heard of cases where people no one would ever suspect (priests, coaches, trusted relatives) have done the most horrible things.

If you have a good relationship with your ex, ask him if he’s noticed anything different about your daughter, whether she’s behaving oddly or saying strange things while she’s with him. If he hasn’t, tell him what your daughter said. But choose your words carefully. Your goal here is to gather information. Coming out and accusing him is a guaranteed conversation stopper.

You may want to get some advice from a close friend, but be careful: certain people—doctors, therapists, day care workers, and others are what’s called “mandated reporters,” meaning that they are required to report any suspicion of abuse—even if they aren’t 100 percent sure.

Although it’s tempting, try not to ask your daughter any more about this. Toddlers have an uncanny ability to read our expressions and will adapt what they say to what they think we want to hear—even if it’s completely made up. So wait a little and see whether she brings it up again without any prompting.

I’m not trying to minimize your fears—just hearing your story makes me wince. I just want you to be absolutely sure before you pick up that phone.