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Are All Adults Potential Predators in Kids’ Eyes?

Have parental warnings made our children too suspicious?

My husband Rick, who coaches a youth soccer team, was waiting with our 14-year-old son, Danny, for the rest of their team to arrive when they saw a teenage girl kicking a soccer ball. Rick asked the girl if she wanted to practice with his team and she politely declined.

That well-intentioned invitation earned my husband the moniker "creeper" from Danny, as in "Dad, you're such a creeper."

Now, my son doesn’t really believe my husband is a stalker or predator but it seems that these days any adult can be dubbed a "creeper" merely for speaking to a child he isn’t coaching, teaching or parenting.

Have we drilled one too many warnings into our kids so that they interpret the smallest act of friendliness on the part of an adult – in broad daylight with other children around – as "creepy?"

When I was growing up, I had adults in my life – parents of friends  – who became second parents to me. True, I was closer to the mothers than the fathers, but by the time I was a teenager I felt comfortable talking with the fathers and I certainly didn’t consider them "creepers."

I asked a couple of parenting experts if kids' hyper-suspicion of adults is the price we pay for keeping children safe from real predators.  

Rochelle Freedman, , wasn't ready to concede that.

"There's too much fear and sometimes that takes away from children's capacity to have relationships with well-meaning adults," Freedman said.  

Bill Vogler, executive director of Family Answers, a nonprofit counseling service based in Allentown, said his children have called him a creeper for the same crime of friendliness of which my husband was accused.  

"I tend to be outgoing and gregarious and talk to strangers and they've called me the same thing," he said. "I've always felt that teaching kids about ‘stranger danger’ is a two edged sword."

For example, if a kid is lost at a mall, he needs to be able to go to an adult – but he should be advised to pick a mother with a stroller rather than a man in a trench coat, Vogler said.

Both Vogler and Freedman said parents' focus on "stranger danger" obscures the fact that the vast majority of cases of sexual abuse of children are perpetrated by a relative or someone very close to the victim.

“When you study predators, they do not randomly choose victims…there’s a period of grooming,” she said. The best way to protect your children is to make sure they feel comfortable telling you anything, that they have peer relationships and aren’t otherwise falling through the cracks.

And they should be allowed to "go with their gut" instinct if someone makes them uncomfortable, Vogler said. “More often than not I think our gut can be right about stuff."

So what do you think? Have we created a generation of hyper-suspicious young people and is that necessary to keep them safe?

Lauren Warner September 15, 2011 at 01:17 PM
I would rather have my sweet little cousins and sister be suspicious of everyone rather than become a victim. Kids should know that this happens as soon a they are mature enough to understand that not everyone has their best interest in mind. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful piece!
Pamela Porter September 15, 2011 at 03:23 PM
Kids should also know this statistic: in 90% of the rapes of children less than 12 years old, the child knew the offender, according to police-recorded incident data (cite: http://www.prevent-abuse-now.com/stats2.htm ) They should know that not every friend or family member has their best interest in mind, either.
Steph September 15, 2011 at 03:44 PM
I agree! But it's important to teach them to recognize the signs of this type of thing. MOST adults, strangers or otherwise, do have the child's best interest in mind, or at the very least aren't out to hurt that child. But often there are things that would raise flags leading up to actual molestation, like giving gifts or playing seemingly innocent "games" and telling the child they shouldn't let their parents know about it. They try to build trust first and put the child in a position that makes it difficult for him or her to tell a parent what is happening. Teaching a child how to recognize these signs is (a) a lot more effective than the stranger danger approach and (b) will set that child on the right path to developing good gut instincts when judging whether to trust people as an adult. A child who is fearful of every adult in the world (stranger or not) will just grow into an an adult who is too scared to leave mommy and daddy's basement and navigate the world by him- or herself.
Pamela Porter September 15, 2011 at 04:07 PM
I agree, Steph and that was the point of my not-so-well written response. Concentrate on teaching kids to keep themselves protected, safe and calm no matter what the situation. Focus on the situation, not the fact that there's necessarily a "stranger" involved. At least a few times I've stopped myself from comforting a child (fell & skinned a knee just out of range of parents/guardians, etc) because I simply am afraid of the possible reaction of either the child or its parents.

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