I Missed The Parental Panic Memo

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Occasionally the neighborhood list-serv will light up with an announcement about a creepy man going door-to-door. Half the time I’m thankful for the alert. I have small children and I certainly wouldn’t want harm to come to them from some pervy dude. But the other half the time I wonder what the real story is with the panicked note. Was it really a creepy man going door-to-door? Was it someone with less-than-stellar English trying to sell magazine subscriptions? Was it someone just being neighborly?

I wonder these things because I’ve seen the way some neighbor parents clutch their children tight to them on the sidewalk or run scurrying off from the playground the moment a single man approaches. I think I was born without the gene of fearing single men at the playground.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did once see a creepy man at the playground. I was visiting a new play area that we normally don’t go to. No other families were there. It was a bit run down as far as playgrounds go. Almost as soon as we arrived, a man came up on a bike and sat down on a bench facing my children. I try to give my children space so he was actually much closer to them than I was. He was staring at them and kept looking over his shoulder at me. I interpreted this as him checking whether I was watching them. It was sufficient weirdness that I felt uneasy and I told the girls we were going to a different park. As soon as we walked away, he got on his bike and went down the path.

But there are dozens of men who have sat on benches in playgrounds without raising my suspicion. I’ve had nice chats and met some neighbors that way. So I kind of enjoyed this article about the constant state of parental anxiety and how reports of “creepy” man at D.C. parks caused a small panic.

Basically a parent sent around a note with the alarming subject line “SAFETY ALERT — Suspicious man in area parks.” Well that will get your attention. The note described the man as suspicious, someone who watched children. There was a blurry photo showing a tall, thin, white man with close-cropped hair sitting on a park bench sipping from a coffee cup. It was forwarded and forwarded and forwarded and ended up being sent to school and neighbor groups throughout Northwest D.C.

People began reporting that they may have seen the suspect at other playgrounds. Someone else said he may have been spotted at National Cathedral’s Flower Mart, where he approached children offering tutoring.

As the article says:

The mini panic doesn’t say much about whether this man is an actual threat. But it does say much about modern parenting and about our relentless anxiety.

No longer are hunches spread among friends.They are spread online. This has benefits as warnings can head off real danger, which this person may possibly pose. But unverified information and unjustified fear can also go viral.

If it’s someone else’s hunch, how can we determine if we should dismiss it or embrace it?

Exactly! A few years ago on one of my neighborhood list-servs, a woman flipped out over another neighbor and her husband taking a picture of her daughter on Halloween. The woman allowed the picture to be taken but then got worried. Why in the world would they want such a thing? She alerted our entire list-serv to their creepiness and went back over and tried to get them to delete the picture. The couple — an older couple who claimed they simply wanted to share pictures of the cutest costumes that came to their door with their own family — were aghast. They’d also been mentioned by name and block number as creepy and suspicious. I was appalled.

Clearly the hunches the mother of the costumed girl had were not ones that I shared. I couldn’t even figure out what her worst case scenario was for this couple having a picture of her little ladybug (or whatever the costume was). What bad thing was supposed to happen? I actually posed that question to the list-serv and nobody had a good answer beyond “bad things.”

The article goes on to show how in our enlightened age we have the same seeds of moral panic that used to lead to witch hunts.

[Roger N. Lancaster, the] George Mason University cultural studies professor last year published “Sex Panic and the Punitive State,” (University of California Press) and has previously spoken with me about the current parenting climate that has parents, he says, in a constant state of dread.

We keep our kids indoors and under constant supervision out of the misplaced idea that over-protection is good parenting, even though the reality is that child abduction by a stranger is exceedingly rare, he contends.

What do you think? Are these flourishing email alerts about creepy men helping society? Are they hurting? How do you handle them? As for me, I like to check for hard evidence and calm disposition from the person making the claim.

(Photo: Schaefer Elivra/Shutterstock)


  1. Amanda

    May 25, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Oh my goodness THANK YOU! Everyone is in such a constant state of anxiety, and the worst part for me is that when I want to give my child more freedom, I don’t feel I can because everyone else is so anxious, I’m worried I’ll have CPS called on me.

    The likelihood that your child will be abducted is crazy, crazy small. I miss my childhood days when I could bounce around our neighborhood on my bike and build forts in the alley, because no one worried. I’m so sad my child will likely not have a childhood like that (I’m trying to move to an area where it will be more likely). Stop living in fear and give your kids some space.

    • Andrea

      May 25, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      I know what you mean Amanda. My children play and bike up and down our dead end street and I look in on them every so often. I also have that tiny fear that some idiot will report me to CPS for not properly supervising my children; but I won’t let other people dictate my life choices. My children are FINE and they will continue to be FINE and they have had lots of training on stranger danger. I won’t keep them in a bubble. They need to have some independence and learn how to live in the world.

    • Another Steph

      May 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Yep, me too. I’m not even a tiny bit concerned about paedophiles and abducters, but I’m terried of some helicopter busybody calling CPS on me.

  2. Andrea

    May 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    A few years ago I lived in an incredibly snooty ass area. Mothers that lived here had LITERALLY nothing else to do but worry about their children. One time they succeeded in locking down the local elementary school (yes LOCK DOWN) because they saw a “suspicious man” loitering around the parking lot of the grocery story a few blocks away. It down right pissed me off because the school made an announcement over the intercom that the kids wouldn’t be having recess that day because “it wasn’t safe for the children”. My son (then in Kindergarten) flipped right out. The “suspicious man”? A grandpa that sadly suffered from some early dementia had gotten separated from his daughter and was wandering around the parking lot. His daughter was frantically trying to find him and finally did. There wasn’t a single damn suspicious thing about it. Just an old man.

    I deleted myself from those neighborhood alert e-mails because I can take of my children just fine when they are out and about and we don’t need to live in a the self-created fearful world of bored suburban mombies.

    • Another Steph

      May 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm

      The saddest thing about that story is that the man could have gotten hurt or worse because bored suburban mombies think, “Creeper!” before they think, “Should I see if that man needs help?”

    • Andrea

      May 27, 2012 at 12:05 am

      Steph: precisely. Not to mention the fact that it freaked my kid right out and was afraid to go to the school’s playground for weeks. Morons.

  3. Shelly G

    May 25, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    My husband has been a victim of this mentality. If people see him with our daughter, they tend to be fine, but God forbid we’re out and I’m holding her. He’s 6’5 with long hair and is typically dressed in jeans and a t-shirt – not the most respectable looking guy, but the creepiest thing he’ll do is a polite smile to other parents. People still drag their children away from him.

  4. Katie

    May 25, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    My ‘story to tell’ was when we were in a hardware store, a very exciting day, my daughter, Sage, was, then, 5yrs old and about to start school. One of the completely unrelated parts of starting school we decided, was that she was now a big girl, so her pastel pink bedroom with teddy bear wall stickers was now too “babyish” (as she put it) so the three of us went down to the hardware store, for the fun event of letting her pick her own colour to paint her room.

    She picked a very nice sky blue colour, and we were waiting for it to get mixed, I was still looking at the paint wall (for that bathroom renovation that will never happen) and Sage was with her dad on the other side of the counter.

    I should now add, my husband is a scruffy farm hand, he has a long beard, and is bald, and walks around in workboots and flannel shirt, and has this odd little habit of wearing sunglasses indoors. This woman with two kids walked past and stopped, when my husband turned his back, I heard her say to Sage, “Sweetie, dont go with that man, he’s not very nice, come on, we have to find Mummy and Daddy, how could they just leave you here?”

    Well, my husband gave her an earful, but it just goes to show how quick to judge people are based off, well, nothing. This woman saw a cute little girl with plaits and ribbons next to a scruffy guy and instead of aking the assumption of “That must be her father” she went “PREDATOR! SAVE CHILD I DO NOT KNOW!”

    He also gets funny looks at school events, not so much now that Sage has been at the school for a few years, poeple now realise that he is a Dad, but initially, he was eyed off as “who is that strange man?”

    Its really quite sad.

    • Amy

      May 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Warning children about specific looking men can almost make it more dangerous for them. Even adult women are more likely to be wary of a man who looks like your husband than a clean cut man in a suit. Predators can look like anyone, and according to every statistic I’ve ever heard, they are most often known by the victims and the victim’s family.

  5. T.

    May 26, 2012 at 2:56 am

    It would be ore useful if people taught their children what to do in the -veeeery rare- case of abduction.

    My sister, when she was 3 or 4, got almost abducted by a woman. She was playing in the sand pen when this mild looking woman came towards her and, very gently, took her hand and started to walk away. I was playing over the slides and saw it, so I ran to my mother (it was a different playground from when we usually went) and well, the woman got an earfull 😛
    Later, my mother gave my sister and me a talk about what to do in such case. Scream. Kick. The usual. But only if somebody was actually trying to bring us away.

    Most small children who are abducted do not put up a scene… because they aren’t taugh to and because, since their parents had always keep all stranger at bay *they are only used to know “trusthworthy” adults”* (which are the one who does the most molesting)

    Fact is: women abducts children just as well. Probably more than men. Teach your child that, if somebody try to snatch them away, it doesn’t matter how genty it is done, they should scream and kick.

  6. CW

    May 26, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Doesn’t *ANYONE* else find it a red flag that the guy was approaching children offering tutoring services? If he really was a tutor, wouldn’t he be putting up flyers advertising his services on the community bulletin boards at Starbucks, Panera, etc.? What legitimate tutor goes around to playgrounds talking to kids in order to drum up business?

    • Katie

      May 27, 2012 at 2:41 am

      I read it as one person reported that was the case after the mass hysteria occured, as in, the tutoring offers never really happened.

  7. Maureen C

    June 4, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I was a child protective social worker for twelve years and working through the court and schools as a therapist, all of the credible research in my field indicates that sexual abuse occurs largely in families and the perpetrator is the father, grandfather, step-father or mother’s boyfriend followed by coach, teacher, or scout leader ( etc). The child almost always knows the person and comes to trust them, that is how they gain access to the child. This panic of strangers seems to be unfounded in most cases, often a confused or dissheveled elderly person or mentally ill gentleman will appear irratic or unbalanced but have no real intention or history of hurting children.

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