Do we teach children to fear men?

Lost kids are taught to avoid males, coaches are told to refrain from touching players and some advise hiring only female babysitters.

Published August 31, 2007 7:55PM (EDT)

I just came across this Wall Street Journal article from last week and it deserves a mention even though it's somewhat stale. Reporter Jeff Zaslow writes that in trying to protect kids, in many ways we're teaching them to be scared of men. He says:

When children get lost in a mall, they're supposed to find a "low-risk adult" to help them. Guidelines issued by police departments and child-safety groups often encourage them to look for "a pregnant woman," "a mother pushing a stroller" or "a grandmother." The implied message: Men, even dads pushing strollers, are "high-risk" ... Child advocate John Walsh advises parents to never hire a male babysitter. Airlines are placing unaccompanied minors with female passengers rather than male passengers. Soccer leagues are telling male coaches not to touch players.

In other words, we've reached total hysteria. Most predators are men, sure, but most men are not predators! As Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, told the Journal, "The number of men who will hurt a child is tiny compared to the population. Virtually all of the time, if a child is lost or in trouble, he will be safe going to the nearest male stranger." Professor Peter Stearns, who studies fear and anxiety at George Mason University, told the Journal that it's generally assumed that men "have the potential for violence and sexual aggressiveness." The result is that some children come to view any unfamiliar man "as a potential evildoer." These kinds of panic-stricken protections seem to do more harm than good; there's great potential to limit and damage kids' relationships with men (and vice versa) while doing little to actually protect against abuses.

I have more mixed feelings about fathers' rights groups protesting a recent ad campaign in Virginia that publicizes a sex abuse hot line. One ad features a man holding a child's hand and the text: "It doesn't feel right when I see them together." The fact that the ad features a man, instead of a woman, isn't objectionable. But it does seem a tad hysterical -- are people supposed to report a man for holding a child's hand just because it doesn't "feel right"? Shouldn't we be encouraging more fatherly affection and hand-holding?

Child abuse should be taken seriously, of course; that should go without saying. It's just too bad attempts to address the issue -- by child-welfare groups, parents, airlines and schools -- aren't more reasoned. The same goes for the issue of men being broadly portrayed as potential abusers. It's too bad that when a mainstream publication tackles the topic, it's folks from the nutball site (which shrieks that tolerating a woman's "nonsense" buys you a ticket on "The Estrogen Express -- to Disasterville") who come out of the woodwork.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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