Of Peanuts and Pedophiles

You’ve probably read about the new, possible cure for peanut allergies. One very hopeful study at Duke ( http://tinyurl.com/cmbh39 ) found that by administering first a dust-size speck of peanuts to an allergic child, and then a slightly larger speck and so on and so on, you can sometimes train the child’s immunological system to stop violently overreacting.  It is wonderful to think that for some people, this may be a cure at last. But it’s also wonderful to think of the peanut story as an analogy to, of all things, stranger danger.

If a child is allowed to explore the world – a little at first, under loving surveillance, but more and more as the years go by — that child’s chances of overreacting to small, everyday risks diminishes. The child is gradually developing street smarts.

But what if that’s not allowed to happen, because the parents have been brainwashed by cable TV and what have you, into thinking their child is never safe out of their sights?

In my  book I write about a grandma who was in her allergist’s waiting room when a boy of about three came up to her and wanted to look through the magnifying glass she was using to read her newspaper. (Gotta love those newspaper readers!)

The grandma was delighted to show the boy, but instantly the kid’s mother swooped in and literally carried him off, saying, “He’s got to learn early NOT to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers” apparently including even little old ladies in waiting rooms. With allergies.

Think of that grandma as a tiny speck of peanut dust: The perfect introduction to the world of strangers. Just a tiny smidgen of the unknown, presented in a safe, controlled environment.

If we don’t let our kids interact with the world at all — if every stranger is considered a pedophile (and a quick pedophile at that, who can run out of a waiting room with a three year old under her arm), we are not doing our kids any kind of service.

We are making them, essentially, allergic to life. The world should be their oyster. Instead, it’s their their peanut.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                               — Lenore

46 Responses

  1. What kids need to learn about strangers is that you don’t go away somewhere with a stranger. Talking to strangers while Mom/Dad is 5 feet away should be encouraged.

  2. Dear Lenore,

    Thank you for having the courage to stand up to the overprotective panic that has taken over. Not long ago I moved from an apartment in a declining neighborhood to a home in a clean, low traffic, fairly well to do suburb. I was so excited for my kids to have a place to ride bikes and meet other neighborhood kids. I’ve been stunned by the fact that these kids seem to have less freedom than the kids in our old neighborhood. My daughter’s friend next door (20 ft door to door at most) couldn’t even come knock on our door without mom hovering for months.

    Last night my 7 year old daughter’s school had an open house. I allowed her to leave her classroom and go to the bathroom on her own. She was told she needed me to go with her and sent back. I didn’t send her out in the dark to the corner 7-11 to find a public restroom! In her own quiet little neighborhood school, surrounded by friends and parents, she was not allowed to visit the nearby bathroom she uses every day on her own. For a moment, I experienced that guilty thought that perhaps I had been irresponsible. Then I thought of your blog and reminded myself not to succumb to the irrational fear of others.
    Thank you.

  3. What makes the most sense to me is Bruce Schneier’s suggestion… Don’t talk to strangers who initiate the conversation.

    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/06/talking_to_stra.html

  4. I love this analogy! My son had an egg allergy when he was younger, and the way that we found he had outgrown it was by bringing meringue to the allergist’s right around each birthday and feeding him a tiny bit, then a bit more, etc until he either had a reaction (3 years in a row) or didn’t (the 4th year).

    Also, speaking as a person who was molested by a relative as a 7 year-old, I know firsthand that ‘strangers’ are not always the biggest threat; in fact, most children are abused by someone they know, not abducted by little old ladies in waiting rooms… my husband and I teach our kids to be aware when something doesn’t feel right (we think of that as street smarts) and tell us about it, and also to follow our lead and consider strangers ‘friends we have not yet met.’ That way, they talk to people from all walks of life and begin to know for themselves when something feels not-quite-right – street smarts, again.

    Thanks for this post – you are making the world a safer place with your writing🙂

  5. Lenore, I’m loving the every day postings. Thanks! I just got a note from Amazon…your book is on it’s way to my house…I preordered.

  6. Love your blog! I remember taking my older son and a friend of his to get some ice cream a few years ago, when they were six or so. The boys got their ice cream, and while I was standing right there waiting for mine, my son sat down on one of the benches on the plaza where the Dairy Queen was located. His friend freaked out –because there was already someone sitting on the opposite end of the bench. “Jay!!! You’re sitting next to a stranger!!!”

    I felt sorry for the friend. Judging from his reaction — he really sounded panicked — he must have this inner monologue about the dangers around him going on pretty much at all times.

  7. Mark: taking into account what Karen said, the rule really should be “don’t go away with (accept rides from, etc.) anyone we haven’t specifically told you you can go away with.” That will cover, say, the family friend who’s a great person but a lousy driver.

  8. I second ebohlman’s comment. Even if it’s someone you’d trust to drive your child somewhere normally, they should get permission in case there’s a conflicting appointment they forgot about.

    This is the same advice dispensed by Penelope Leach in her excellent book “Your Baby and Child”, which (in addition to being a great book overall) is very common-sense about danger.

  9. I only just with the comments on this post realized something else I really like about the place where my daughter will be going to preschool next year — kids seem to be largely free to roam the campus. (Not toddlers, duh. But older kids? Definitely. In fact I think the tour at *our* open house was led by a couple of fifth graders. Led!)

  10. Excellent post, as usual! I let my daughter talk to as many people as she wants and generally only intervene if the recipient does not seem to share my daughters desire to reach out🙂 or if she forgets her manners. Quite frankly, she seems to brighten peoples day most times. She is so cheerful and energetic and I think her efforts are good for both parties. I am in the process of teaching her about strangers and trusted people and she’s not ready to run the neighborhood just yet but someday…look out!🙂

  11. I think teaching children context is important here, as it is throughout life. Even a stranger who initiates a conversation is sometimes doing so innocently.

    I was in front of my apartment building. A kid was across the street, biking on the sidewalk. He was probably between 9 and 11 years old.

    He fell off the bike. I took about three steps toward him (didn’t even get halfway across the street) and said, “Are you okay?” His response was to look at me in terror and say, “I can’t talk to strangers” in a frightened voice.

    Between falling and the culture of fear, he clearly had had enough trauma. So I held up both hands, took a step back, and said, “Okay.”

    His response was to get on his bike and, as he started to pedal back the way he had come, yell, “I can’t talk to strangers!”

    It’s good to teach your kids not to accept gifts from strangers, or go anywhere with a stranger. I totally get that, and I was taught that myself. But this kid was too scared of too many people, and I felt bad for him–and not just because he had taken a fall.

  12. It’s ironic really, because my 5 month old has led to more discussions with “strangers” since her birth than I can possibly recall having in the past 5 or so years. The only thing that kind of freaks me out is if someone goes to touch her without asking my permission first…then I just move the stroller out of their range.

    Obviously I’m not having “stranger” conversations with my baby girl yet, but when I do, I’d like to foster the same sensible fearlessness that I had. I grew up talking to anyone who would talk back to me…usually elderly adults, which fostered my love of “the old days”, which in turn is probably why I have a degree in History. I’d like to think I brightened a lot of days with my exuberant 5, 8, 10, whatever year old interest…and learned a lot in return.

    I’d hate to rob my daughter of that same gift…or to rob any “strangers” of the gift of my daughter.

    Having said that, I also had a “special word” that meant it was okay to pick me up from wherever if you weren’t my mom or grandparents. I knew that going somewhere with someone who didn’t know our special word was wrong. And I learned to listen to my “inside voice” that told me when to stay and when to get out.

    And to second someone else’s comment…I was never hurt by a stranger. I was, however, touched innapropriately by a babysitter’s husband…someone I’d known for a year at the time.

  13. Right on, Mark S. Right ON.

    My husband and I encourage our children to talk to strangers and to greet them if a conversation has been struck. Furthermore, they are required to say “thank you” to cashiers, waitstaff etc when we have been helped, um, because it is POLITE. Nonetheless, I have been having the “you never take off with strangers” conversation with my 3 year old.

    As a child, I was never harmed by a stranger. I was, however, inappropriately approached by a neighbor and an uncle. In both instances, I told my parents immediately and they were able to make sure it did not progress into something Truly Serious. THAT is what we need to teach our children – communication.

  14. Perfect analogy. Loved.

  15. Karen and Cagey

    As someone who is very familiar with the demographics of child abusers and the dynamics of physical and sexual abuse, I want to thank you both for pointing out that, especially in the case of sexual abuse, the abuser is (more than 90% of the time) someone the child knows, NOT a stranger.

    Children will never learn to “read” others unless they are allowed to interact with others. Keeping them cloistered and protected will ultimately result, I believe, in a higher likelihood that they will fall prey to more dangerous situations as young adults.

    Thanks for your post, Lenore!

  16. when i was a child my mother would run into her bedroom and throw herself down on the floor behind her bed if someone so much as turned into our driveway.

    at the age of sixteen i found myself unable to so much as order a hamburger from a fast food place.

  17. A nice old lady is a STRANGER? Really?

    I would be UNBELIEVABLY offended if someone talked to me like that. I have a 5-year-old daughter and we go to the park all the time, where I get introduced to her new friend(s) every time. And my daughter talks to other adults all the time.

    I *encourage* this.

    I’ve taught her to not give out personal information–when she first learned our address and phone number she was REALLY excited about it, but not something I consider prudent for a 5-year-old to be telling the whole world. I’ve taught her not to take gifts or food from strangers without clearing it with me–not because I’m paranoid, but because I personally think it’s creepy for strangers to give things to strange children without making sure it’s okay with their parents. And I’ve taught her not to get in a stranger’s car or go anywhere private with a stranger.

    I feel like asking for personal info, offering gifts or food, or asking kids to follow are all kind of red flags for people who might be dangerous. I hope that by teaching my child to be aware of those things now, she’ll develop a “creepiness radar”.

    I don’t want her to be socially crippled or terrified of people though. I want her to understand that most people are mostly good most of the time, and that you really can TRUST people. Children don’t need to be taught not to TALK to strangers. They need to develop the social tools and skills and perception that will enable them to meet people throughout their lives. The more people we meet, the better community we have, the fewer “strangers” there are.

  18. Thank you for being a voice of reason in the wilderness. Earlier today, I read an essay on Salon written by a man who has worked with abused children who have sexually assaulted other children. Their stories are heartbreaking and horrifying, but the author’s advice to his readers strikes me as the worst sort of fear mongering:

    “So, what is the purpose of this post? Simple. Don’t trust your children with anyone. Avoid babysitters if at all possible. How common is child on child sex abuse? Nobody knows. There are no accurate figures on this dark issue. Sex abuse of all kinds is a hidden evil. This type of crime is in the darkest corner of a pitch black room. Trust me. It is common people and may be going on in your neighborhood regardless of what kind of neighborhood it is . . . I hope you don’t see this post as pollution or hysterical exaggerated ranting on my part. I hope you see it for what it was intended — a warning. So you advocate not trusting anyone? Concerning kids, the answer is an emphatic: Exactly!”

    http://open.salon.com/blog/idahospud44/2009/04/03/the_darkest_corner_-my_experiences_with_kid_predators

  19. @PB

    That guy, and that statement, is effed up. Seriously.

  20. It is funny to think that we teach our kids not to talk to strangers – which I did for a while – until I realized when my daughter asked me, “what do I do if I get lost in a store and can’t talk to strangers?” just what I was doing.

    Great post, Lenore.

  21. pb,

    That is a terrifying link. While the abuse described there is horrific, dismantling the human social structure, and thus much of the necessary human contact, to prevent it seems just as horrific — and possibly more damaging across the community as a whole.

    As Dorothy Day wrote:

    “Looking more deeply at the invisible forces that link one human being to another helps us see something even more profound: our brains and bodies are designed to function in aggregates, not in isolation. That is the essence of an obligatory gregarious species. The attempt to function in denial of our need for others, whether that need is great or small in any given individual, violates our design specifications. The effects on health are warning signs, similar to the “Check Engine” light that comes on in today’s cars with their comptuerised sensors. But social connection is not jusy a lubricant that like motor oil, prevents overheating and wear. Social connection is a fundamental part of the human operating and organising system itself.”

    Trauma and abuse cause undo and unwarranted damage, but I don’t think that excuses a response that merely spreads the damage across the population, allowing trauma and fear to deprive everyone of the community necessary to the human.

  22. I think the quote above is actually from John T. Cacioppo. I think I need some sleep.

  23. I pity the son of the salon writer. He’s going to grow up terrified of his own shadow if that is his father’s outlook on life. But as he’ll probably be living at home until age 40, unable to exist apart from his parent, at least he’ll be totally safe from any predator.

  24. “What kids need to learn about strangers is that you don’t go away somewhere with a stranger. Talking to strangers while Mom/Dad is 5 feet away should be encouraged.”

    Absolutely. What I teach my kids (and which I borrowed from another, far wiser parent than I will ever be) is; talk to whoever you like, just don’t go anywhere with anyone unless Mum or I say it’s okay. It’s worked just fine so far.

    Our kids are going to have to live in the world sooner or later. It’s our job to teach them how to do so, not to cripple them with fear.

  25. Nicola, that’s absolutely right – I read a book (that I am drawing a blank on the title of at the moment….) that said that sends a really conflicting message to kids because (a) they see you doing it all the time to the bank teller or the store cashier or whatever, and (b) the people who could most likely help them – policeman, store clerk, etc. ARE strangers! So should they stand there like a paralyzed bunny because they can’t decide if the Target stockperson is enough of a stranger that the kid can’t ask them to help find you?

  26. Right on! Dont EVER Talk to strangers

    KIm

  27. Check out Gavin DeBecker’s “Gift of Fear.” He has several books with the same theme. It’s essentially “trust your instinct.” We’re about the only animals that don’t trust our instincts.

    My 2 year old brightens everyone’s day in waiting rooms . . . and I’m proud of her for it. Little by little, with my supervision, she can learn a little more about the world. Teaching that everyone in a uniform is okay (statistically not true; check out some of those mall cops) and everyone else is a stranger (by definition true, but not very practical) is a way to ensure our little ones have ulcers and not much common sense.

  28. And don’t forget the mixed messages we send when we say “don’t talk to strangers” then plop them down in Santa’s lap (or leave them with a sub at Sunday School or whatever).

  29. Where I grew up, there were a rash of attempted child abductions for a time. My mother never hid us away, instead the community response was to teach us kids how to react if someone DID try to abduct us.

    Then we were promptly booted out to play til the sun came down.

    I honestly don’t believe there’s a predator hiding on every corner, but the fear mongering makes some think so.

  30. Maybe we should develop some kind of fake “citation” ticket for overprotective parents and hand them out in situations like the one in the dr.’s office. Something like “Warning: You are endangering your child’s future social skills / independence / intelligence by:” followed by a checklist.

  31. There was a story several years ago about a boy scout who got lost from camp, and almost wasn’t found in time. They thought that he actually heard the rescuers looking for him sooner, but had been so inculcated with “don’t talk to strangers” that he HID FROM HIS RESCUERS.

  32. Lenore,

    I was referred to your blog posting today by a Kidpower instructor – phenomenal analogy and I really enjoyed reading all the responses!

    Kidpower workshops for kids and parents have families practice some really great skills for what they call “stranger safety,” using the premise that “most people are good” and that we are strangers to other folks too – which can be surprising for many kids! The Kidpower “rule” I liked the best is to check first when things change.

    So that can be the child asking her nearby parent if it’s ok to pet a new or approaching dog, or going back to the parent on the park bench to say “hey mom! someone new wants to be our friend!” when new person approaches saying hello, or going back into school to have the office staff call her parents when someone else comes to pick her up at school and it wasn’t the plan. I love the Check First rule – which turns into Think First as children get older and have more independence. I use both tools all the time as an adult! The Check First rule also has a caveat for Emergencies – when you can’t check first before getting help from someone you don’t know if you’re having an emergency, like being lost, hurt or needing rescue. Getting Help from adults is also a big part of the Kidpower program… anyhow I learned a lot from them that seems to fit well with your FreeRange philosophy as well!

  33. Talking to strangers is fine as long they are with a parent or relative.

  34. We have moved from Hollywood to a small safe resort town that is picture perfect suburban America. So I have some genuine perspective on both sides of the safety spectrum. My neighbor grew up in our small safe town and is now a single mom to an 11 yr old girl. The other day she was all freaked because she encountered a panhandler who asked her for money. She was sure that this meant it was no longer safe for her daughter to wait for the school bus. Might I add that this same woman can’t understand why I won’t let her daughter babysit my kids alone at night. Um, because she has been so sheltered from, and frightened of, everything (including panhandlers?!?) that she wouldn’t know how to handle a real emergency. And after all, isn’t an emergency the number one thing a babysitter is there to handle? That little girl is already losing in the world of commerce because she is not being taught the necessary, age appropriate, life skills to be a reliable babysitter.

  35. As usual, I love your post. Why didn’t I find you years ago when my kids were younger. It would have saved me a lot of anxiety and second guessing! Luckily, I mostly came down on the “free-range” side, but felt a little radical doing it.

    My 5-year-old is very friendly and talks to people everywhere. I totally encourage it, and she can seriously have an adult-like conversation with anyone. She asks appropriate questions and responds to the answers (not like most kids – and my other two – who really just want to talk and have the adult listen). However, once in a dr’s office she had some tell her “you shouldn’t talk to strangers”. I just thought he didn’t want to talk to her and was rather offended that he was so rude.

  36. I would never interrupt my child like that! (That poor old lady, too)

    At first I thought you were going to say that the mom swooped in and told the kid to leave the poor old lady and her magnifying glass alone, because I see that a lot. I can’t believe she actually wants to teach her child to be afraid of everyone! That’s a social disaster waiting to happen.

  37. Our rule for our kids–we got this from some book, I don’t remember what now–was always, “It’s OK to talk to people, but don’t *go away* without making sure the adult who is in charge of you knows where you’re going.” Common sense, no paranoia.

    I’ve started reading the book, and I just love it. It’s funny, because I’ve always been vaguely contemptuous of people who read things just because they agree with them: liberals who only like to read stuff by liberals, and conservatives who only like to read stuff by conservatives, and so on. But that is exactly why I am reading your book. Not to learn anything, not to challenge myself, not even to find new arguments: just to have the cathartic experience of saying “SOMEONE in the world thinks I’m not crazy!”

  38. You write so beautifully – and truthfully. I LOVE that you say what needs to be said – needs to be SHOUTED from the roof tops… (good luck with that) … And that you (unlike myself) have a sense of humor about it all.

    DHS took my 3 grandsons – and I have “no rights” to them – and just this past week – had to beg a stranger (the DHS Agent – aka caseworker) for permission to mail my grandson a card – in which I promised to write “no personal message.” What is wrong with our country?

    I am a college educated, nice lady. I am active in my community, president of the Coastal Arts Guild, and an active democrat. I am also a member of MENSA and a decades long worker for peace and non-violence. I have a box of letters all proclaiming my decency … but it amounts to zero – because DHS has my grandsons – and I am banned. The CASA worker said to me last week “You have too much influence on these boys. What if they wanted to join the army?”

    So – I guess it is OK that the US Agents remove our children – to place them in State Conditioning Centers (read BRAVE NEW WORLD again if this reference makes no sense – available on line: http://orwell.ru/library/others/huxley/english/e_bnw
    The State Agency – can take our kids – and place them to be “trained” to do what the government wants/needs… future cannon fodder for wars in support of profit for a few. And I stand helpless before The Power. It is criminal that this be allowed.

    Thank you for what YOU do – you bring the humanity back into my thoughts of children…. I am so angry – I can only rage.

  39. Printing this out- putting it on my fridge!

  40. Great post. I think the whole “Don’t talk to strangers” saying began when we actually trusted children to go outside by themselves – vis. with the other kids “out” in the neighbourhood. It was a rule that was understood in the context of a stranger approaching a child. Now it’s been taken way to far. I feel for any child whose parents take it to mean all strangers are dangerous even old ladies under the watchful eye of the parent. There used to be a thing call community.

  41. Years ago I was walking down the street in a residential neighborhood, it was a beautiful spring day and I was full of joy. There were a brother and sister playing in their front yard and as I passed them I smiled and said “Hello, isn’t it a wonderful day?” I was a 24 year old woman and I didn’t even pause, but those children were scared to death. One turned to the other and said “That woman talked to me.” Her brother was concerned “You didn’t talk to her did you? We better go tell Mom.” and they ran off to tell Mom about the scary person who actually said “Hello”.

    I often wonder how those kids did in life, frightened as they were and unable to differentiate between a friendly neighbor and someone with horrible intentions.

  42. I completely agree with your post Lenore. I think people are way too paranoid these days, and I’m not old. My son, who is 14 now, can go up to any stranger and ask for help. I taught him at a very early age to ask people for things. I started out in Target, telling him to ask that “lady over there” for the time. He wasn’t more than five years old, and he’s been doing fine with “strangers” ever since. I also taught him to look for a mom with kids if he gets lost. It’s too hard for kids to tell who works in a store, and who doesn’t. Sometimes I wear a red shirt when I go to Target–don’t you think a pedofile might be onto that as well?

    He’s grown up confident, and not afraid of people on the street, but I’ve also taught him to listen to that voice inside his head, and what to do if something doesn’t feel right.

  43. The Gift of Fear! Thanks Chris Hunt, that’s the name I couldn’t think of. It’s a fabulous book and very sensible.

  44. Great post Lenore. I really enjoyed the read. When I was young, my parents gave me a lot of freedom, of course, it was controlled and I gradually got more and more and it really helped me a lot in life.
    You hit it right on the nail – street smarts… something school doesn’t really teach our children.
    Life is fragile, that is a fact, but we can’t shelter our kids.. it won’t do us any good. An overprotective parent is doing a disservice because eventually, kids rebel.
    We’re all one humanity, and I believe that is what is important to teach to our children.
    If our children fear strangers, then the fear will get to them and bad things will happen.
    Positive thinking goes a long way.

  45. Fear is a very useful tool when used properly. If everything is to be feared then nothing is more frightening then anything else, thus it is important to foster a child’s own amazing capability to learn that themselves, but doing exactly as you say: allowing them to go it on their own a little more as each day passes.

    The most important ‘stranger’ lesson I ever learned was to allow children NOT to kiss the grandmother they have only seen twice in their lives, and to let them go with what feels comfortable for them. How many people do you see insisting their poor little shy child kisses some uncle they don’t even like. They might sense something you don’t, but more importantly, they need to know what feels comfortable to them. This is one of the ways they develop their own sense of real fear.

    The same people who teach their kids to fear so much can even be the same ones who insist the child ignored their own sense of fear. GIven no teaching on how to judge it themselves, they are open to all sorts of trouble once they are on their own, yet the child who develops their own sense sees trouble coming and hotfoots it out of there before it hits them.

  46. […] post over at the Free Range Kids blog which draws a great analogy for stranger danger with a possible treatment for peanut allergies. By […]

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