I really hate child molesters. Despise ’em, even. I’d love nothing more than to see them all neutered and worse. I could rant on and on about how depraved and horribly selfish it is to destroy a kid’s developing psyche for the sake of some twisted fetish, but condemning perverts does not a daring commentary make. There’s no local wing of the pro-pedophile camp that would want to write next week’s rebuttal. At least, I hope there isn’t. (If you do take personal offense to anything in the above statements, please feel free to send New Times an angry letter, I guess.)
I think a more worthwhile and necessary discussion should center on the sad fact that we’re letting the pedophiles win. We’re afraid of them, and that super-sensationalized, overblown fear is ruining more childhoods than actual abuse ever could. It’s understandable, though. Every instance of abuse that’s uncovered is so horrid and shocking that it rises to the level of scandal, getting repeated and analyzed ad nauseum by the likes of Nancy Grace, until it seems like child molesters are lurking around every corner, hiding in bushes waiting to pounce the moment parents look away. The result is that kids get escorted the few blocks to the park or their friends’ houses by impatient parents like me who don’t want to stop every five seconds to smell flowers or watch bees.
“Come on, Layla! Let’s go. We gotta get to the park so you can play,” I find myself telling my daughter again and again, like some kind of idiot who only dimly remembers that the best part of being outside is exploring any little thing that catches your curious eye. Destinations are irrelevant to free children. The world would be their playground—if it weren’t for those bastard pedophiles.
I don’t mean to come across as insensitive to the true victims here. What they experience is traumatic and awful and deserving of our full sympathy, but it’s also rare. Statistics from childstats.gov and childhelp.org show that .72 percent of the 76 million American kids ages 0 to 17 are sexually abused. That’s clearly .72 percent too many, but it’s not something that should evoke this very real and common fear that parents feel these days, especially since 90 percent of those abuse cases involve an adult the child already knows. Strangers simply aren’t snatching kids off the streets—not with any regularity, anyway.
Anyway, school’s out for summer, which puts my family in a bind for childcare. As a writer, I have a fairly flexible schedule and can often work from home, leaving me in charge of entertaining the kid. It would work beautifully, except that Layla has this thing where she likes to eat food and have shelter, so I
have to do actual work while I’m home. We can’t just play all day. Our backyard is pretty weak, so she
ends up watching a ton of TV. God forbid she step outside in the beautiful sunshine. That’s where the pedophiles are.
Earlier this week, I got a text from a friend inviting my 7-year-old daughter to come over and play with his. They only live five blocks away, and it was broad daylight. My daughter and I have walked the distance dozens of times, so I knew she could get there on her own. Still, my wife thought better of letting her walk alone. I went with, and when I got there, I asked my friend what he thought. He looked at me like I was nuts and said there was no way he’d send his daughter out alone in our quiet neighborhood. Maybe when she’s 8 or 9.
But a full-grown adult could grab a 9-year-old about as easily, so when is it safe to give a kid a little freedom? Should we wait until they’ve got their driver’s licenses?
Later that same day, I took the bus from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo, and there was a girl riding by herself. She handled the whole thing just fine, and she couldn’t have been more than 10. I wanted to ask, but there was no way this bearded man/guy was going to lean over and go, “How old are you, little girl?” I would’ve looked like some kind of pervert.
Another friend has expressed that same uneasiness around children, even though he gets along great with Layla when we go on hikes and whatnot. He’s offered to babysit on occasion, but only if his girlfriend is around, because he doesn’t want to be that creepy guy who hangs around a kid who isn’t his.
That’s what these perverts have reduced us to. Regular guys without a shred of malevolent intention can’t bring themselves to talk to kids in public because of what society might think, and parents feel forced to supervise their kids 24/7. Whether that’s out of actual fear for their kids’ safety or social stigma is debatable.
If I were betting money, I’d wager that my daughter could walk around our neighborhood playing and knocking on friends’ doors all day without ever being bothered by so much as a grumpy adult. The catch, though, is that I don’t get to wager with money. I have to gamble my daughter’s life and mental health, and that’s not an easy risk to take. If something happened, it would be essentially my fault, and I could never forgive myself. I understand that it’s illogical and that every other parent is in the same position, but there’s got to be some sensible balance here.
Maybe it’s time to just accept the fact that the world is different and dangerous. Maybe I should canvass the neighborhood and form some kind of group watch with the other parents. Or maybe I should face my fears and just let my kid play outside like I did when I was her age.
Contact Staff Writer Nick Powell at firstname.lastname@example.org.