Fearful fathers

In teaching our children to fear men, are we also teaching men to fear children?

Published September 14, 2007 9:09PM (EDT)

A couple of weeks ago Broadsheet covered a Wall Street Journal column that asked whether we, as a culture, are teaching children to fear men. The Broadsheet post has 83 letters to date, and it turns out that the original article provoked a strong reaction as well -- the author, Jeff Zaslow, has written a follow-up column in response to some of the hundreds of letters he received from men about his piece. His point? We're not just teaching children to fear men, we're teaching men to fear children.

Take, for instance, some of the anecdotes Zaslow reports -- an economist in California who "raises his hands above his shoulders" if he accidentally bumps into a child, a doctor in Austin, Texas, who decided against helping a lost child in the mall because he feared that people might think he was a predator, a retiree who won't be left alone with a child, even if he's in an elevator. Reading the piece is heartbreaking -- there are men who feel uncomfortable holding their children's hands in public. (One guy recounted a story wherein a police officer questioned him in an airport restaurant because he was having lunch with his 5-year-old daughter.) A bus driver in Pennsylvania reported that before his divorce, he used to have 30 children stop by his house on Halloween, but now that people know he's living alone, no kids knock on his door. "I felt like crying at the end of the evening," he told the Journal.

I, for one, felt like crying after reading that quote. I find few things more touching than seeing a father gaze adoringly at his newborn baby, or a dad reading to his son or daughter on his lap. After all, we've only recently begun to dismantle the image of the American father as a largely absent breadwinner who plays catch with his sons, leaves his daughters to his wife and rarely gets mushy or tells his family how much he loves them. Just as women have benefited from being able to leave the house and pursue professional careers, many men have gained enormous emotional satisfaction from being able to actively be a part of their children's lives without fear of losing their masculinity.

So it's sad, then, that our paranoia about predation is causing us to take a step back toward a world where only women are qualified to interact with children, and real men -- or at least non-sketchy men -- can have nothing to do with them in public. While it's true that, unfortunately, a higher percentage of predators are male than female, the crimes of a few shouldn't mean that an entire sex is forced to revert to 1950s gender roles. That wouldn't just be unfair, it would hurt men and children, both.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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