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)