Family Matters

Stranger Danger: Are Parents Too Paranoid About Safety?

When a childless man decided to sip his coffee on a bench in a Washington, D.C., playground, nervous parents dashed off emails and called the cops. Was it overreaction? Either way, one mother has a suggestion for controlling the chaos: create a family password to help kids better assess threats.

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MINORI KAWANA / amana images / Getty Images

Recently, my husband and I exchanged amused glances after our 9-year-old son called from the soccer field to confirm that he was supposed to ride home with a teammate’s father. It’s not for nothing that our son’s nickname is “Mr. Safety” due to his preternaturally cautious approach to everyday situations.

But I thought twice about that interaction when I heard about an excitable round of emails that ricocheted last month from mom to mom in Washington, D.C. Here’s how it began:

“A suspicious man has been found watching children in local parks, including Rose Park. … For now please be on the lookout, call the police if needed, and be extra extra safe.”

The message, posted to a local parenting listserv, was accompanied by an out-of-focus photo of a man sitting on a playground park bench with a cup of coffee. The man had not approached any children nor done anything remotely questionable — aside from being in a place where kids play without any children of his own. Yet a flurry of emails followed the original message — some with the words “creepy” or “dangerous” — and multiple parents called the police.

(MORE: Growing Up: Free-Range Kids or Smother Mother?)

As the Washington Post’s Janice D’Arcy notes:

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.

It takes just seconds to dash out an email, without much thought to the potential ramifications. Instantaneously, that email plants seeds of worry even in the most laissez-faire parent. Our current culture seems to encourage this, with a “better safe than sorry” mentality. But are all strangers really synonymous with danger? In a world where the names Etan Patz and Elizabeth Smart have been seared into the consciousness of moms and dads, being hypervigilant is often seen as a byproduct of good parenting. Yet aren’t we better off familiarizing ourselves with the facts: that abductions by strangers are down, and that our children are more likely to be harmed by someone they know?

Speaking of soccer, blogger Denise Schipani weighs in on the controversy, wondering whether to call the cops about “that older dude in the golf-club hat” who was hanging around the goal at her son’s soccer match. Then she answers her own query:

No, because that’s my dad. Seriously, it is my dad. No one called the cops that time my dad spent the bulk of one of my sons’ games last fall hanging around near the goal, but they might have. After all, he was unfamiliar to most of the parents, and he didn’t seem attached to any particular family. He was standing there, rather than sitting with my mom and me, because he likes to stand after sitting in the car for the 45 minutes it takes to drive to my town, and because he could see my son’s signature slide-kick better from that vantage point. But I did wonder if anyone, well, wondered.

(MORE: Are Your Kids Safe Alone at the Park?)

This is not to say that some people who appear out of place in a particular setting aren’t worthy of a once-over. But for the vast majority of situations in which there is no true cause for alarm — and for those where worry is warranted — a mom responding to Schipani has an incredibly useful parenting tip: create a family password. It sounds like a valuable addition to the parenting toolbox, allowing children to better assess someone’s intentions. It seems to present a savvy, if imperfect, alternative to casting aspersions on coffee-slugging parkgoers or spooking our kids that people are out to get them.

Lori K. wrote:

Recently in my community, a strange man pulled up alongside a 5th grade boy biking home from school and said that the boy’s mom sent the man to pick up the boy. And the boy says, “Fine. What’s our family password?” When the man stammered, the boy rode away. He was prepared. He used his instincts and followed a family plan of what to do if. … I applaud his parents for letting him ride his bike home after school and setting a plan of what to do. I applaud the young man for his level headed thinking. It was a good lesson for all of us — not to panic — but to have level-headed conversations with our kids about how to judge a similar situation.

I second Schipani’s reply: “Note to self: institute family password.”

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