In a low growl, I threatened my 4-year-old, Ian, that he would not see the finale of "Mulan" if he continued to talk loudly, throw candy wrappers and run up and down the rows at the theater. Ian called my bluff. Finally, I stood up, gathered the remains of the popcorn and hauled him out as he screamed repentance. As we exited, he made a final request: He needed to go potty. I made a quick scan of the empty auditorium before waving him toward the men's room.
Temporarily free of his mother's wrath, he gleefully swung open the door while I waited. But as I stood outside the door, another mother towing two children around Ian's age purposefully walked over to me. "What are you doing?" she said. I looked at her, dazed. "How could you possibly let your little boy go in there alone," she said, her voice steadily rising. "You should go get him right now." I didn't need this. I was already angry at my kid for being a brat and annoyed that I didn't get to see the end of the movie. (Disney, after all, is high drama for a single mom.) Just then, Ian reappeared with wet hands. I crisply turned and left the mother and her two children standing there.
Yet as I drove home, I wondered, had Ian been in danger? Was I pushing self-reliance too soon? My mother sided with me. Ian, she said, was not in harm's way. It was a Saturday matinee in a suburban theater, practically empty, and I was standing outside the door. But my best friend, who has a 5-year-old son, was stunned. "You did what??" Jennifer said, aghast, before pointing out that her son had never been in a men's restroom alone and probably wouldn't for another year. Alma, a co-worker and mother of two sons, said she normally wouldn't let her oldest, also 4, go alone. But if forced to, she would prefer a crowded restroom than one with only a couple of men. The reason? More witnesses. Another co-worker, who had also worked as a camp counselor for herds of little boys, disagreed. Fewer men, fewer problems, she reasoned.
I had stumbled upon one of those points of conflict among mothers about what is best for the kids. I discovered I weigh the safety of a situation on a pretty shallow belief system: If people look and act like me, the restroom is OK. I deemed the matinee's bathroom safe because there wasn't much traffic and the men in the theater were dressed in pressed khaki Dockers. Yet I deem the bathrooms in Marta, Atlanta's public transit station, unsafe because there are too many transients and there's too much of an urban feel. As a reporter who has written about sexual abuse, I should know better. Safety cannot be determined by Dockers or Karl Kanis.
"There is potential for abuse in restrooms and I don't really
think it matters where they're located," said Officer Rosalind J. Johnson
of the Atlanta Police Athletic League, a law enforcement group that works
with inner city kids. "I don't think a mother can ever be too overprotective
when it comes to safety concerns." There are no national statistics on how
many children are molested in restrooms. But reported cases occur with
alarming regularity in the news. For example:
- The 1997 case of Sherrice Iverson, a 10-year-old who was
molested and choked to death in the restroom of a Nevada casino. Jeremy
Strohmeyer, 19, of Long Beach, Calif., pleaded guilty and was sentenced in
October to life in prison. He killed Sherrice after luring her into the
bathroom with a game
of hide-and-seek. (You can donate to a memorial fund for Sherrice at
- In 1996, a Kansas City, Kan., man was hunted by police because he was
molesting girls who entered public restrooms alone. His first victims were
molested at a bowling center; he subsequently attacked a girl in
a Catholic church recreational center after a basketball game.
- This April, the Orange County Library System in Orlando, Fla., agreed
to spend $1 million to move its children's departments to more visible
areas of the library buildings. Part of the plan requires that no adults be
allowed into the children's section restrooms unless accompanied by
children. Local police report one call a month to check out victimless sex
crimes in the libraries' public restrooms or book stacks.
- Last year, a man was tracked by police after he sexually assaulted at
least two boys in Los Angeles McDonald's restaurants. In the second case,
the assault was interrupted after the boy's mother called his name and
knocked on the door. The man was caught on videotape as he rushed out of
the bathroom, brushing the mother aside.
- And two weeks ago, on Nov. 14, 9-year-old Matthew Cecchi was
murdered by a 20-year-old transient in a Southern California beachside bathroom while
attending a family reunion. Matthew's murderer, who was arrested within
minutes after running out of the bathroom where Matthew was bleeding to
death, his throat slashed from ear to ear, confessed that he was looking
for an easily subdued victim when he settled on Matthew; the circumstances
of the killing -- considered murder by ambush and torture -- may lead
prosecutors to seek the death penalty. At Matthew's funeral last week in
the Northern California town of Oroville, one mourner had to be helped out
of the church as she wailed uncontrollably: It was Matthew's aunt, who had
escorted him to the Oceanside Harbor beach bathroom and then waited outside
the door to ensure his safety.
Caught in the glare of a nightmarish case like Matthew Cecchi's, the
expert-recommended precautions are pitifully weak, at once obvious,
inadequate and frequently impractical. Some groups, such as Protect Our
nonprofit organization that provides family referrals and monitors
legislative bills on sexual abuse, maintain that parents should simply never
allow their child to roam alone anywhere, whether it be a public restroom
or their own backyard. Meanwhile, the parents' guide in the Boy Scout
Handbook advises that children
should be taught to yell "Stop it!" loudly if a stranger tries to
touch them inappropriately.
Officer Johnson, mother of a 10-year-old, says that she would not
recommend that children go alone to a public bathroom until they are 6 or 7
years old; one of her fellow officers does not allow his 7-year-old
daughter to go by herself into the ladies' room, preferring instead that
she go into the men's room with him. Sgt. Stephen Beatty, a community
relations director with the Waco (Texas) Police Department, recommends that
parents ask an employee or salesperson
to check if anyone is already in the bathroom and to pick small, single
restrooms rather than larger restrooms with many stalls. Also, says
Beatty, children should be told to go into a stall and lock the door
Despite the rising concern among parents, police, child protection
groups and even commercial builders (an article in a 1996 issue of
Buildings, a trade magazine, lists a number of suggestions for locating
and designing public restrooms to maximize safety, especially for
children), there will always be someone who will label the rest of us as
suffering from unwarranted paranoia. "There are not sexual predators
behind every tree," says John
Rosemond, a North Carolina psychologist, author and syndicated columnist
known for conservative child-rearing practices. "We really are getting
rather hysterical about the issue of safety."
Rather hysterical? Maybe so. Maybe it's unlikely that my son will be
the next victim of a men's room stalker; no doubt that's what Matthew
Cecchi's aunt was thinking to herself as she walked away from the family
party and marched her nephew to the bathroom at the beach. But what parent
or care-giver is going to take a chance with their child's safety?
Obviously, parents need to use common sense (in the case of Sherrice
Iverson, casino security guards reprimanded her father three times for
leaving her unattended), but the kind of common sense our mothers used when
asking a well-dressed grandfatherly type to look after our brothers in the
bathroom just cannot apply anymore. The current statistics are that one
out of four girls and one out of seven boys will be victimized by sexual
predators -- and at least half of the sex crimes against children are
committed by someone they know, according to Jennifer Mitchell, vice president
of Child Lures, a Vermont
business designed to stop child sexual abuse.
Has any of this information affected my own decisions about restrooms?
Well, yes. Where I used to let him go alone freely, now I pull him back.
But the decision is tinged with sadness. I already believe fear of others
is being injected too deeply into all of our lives. I hate that Halloween,
the only holiday where a neighborhood opens its doors for its children, is
slowly morphing into an evening of little home parties. And although I do
it, I hate that in teaching Ian about his private parts I must also
instruct him who's not supposed to be touching them. As I steer
Ian away from the men's room, he quizzically stares at the sign of the
triangle-shaped woman on the door. "Why?" he asks. It's a question with an
answer even I don't feel ready to know.