Dear Abby: Am I Paranoid Enough?

Hi Folks — If you ever wonder why parents seem so terrified these days, here’s why: We live in a society filled with more paranoia than a convention of Moon Landing conspiracists.

Below is a prime example of us being told by a trusted “authority” to always conjure up the least likely but most devastating scenario possible and then proceed as if it’s likely to happen.  As a parenting philosophy it’s depressing, delusional, debilitating — and apparently Dear Abby’s modus operandi:

Dear Abby: I know some children who seem to be mature and are able to make logical decisions on a fairly regular basis. Still, making a decision under stress when one has not had a lot of experience can be difficult.

Having said that, at what age do you think it is appropriate to leave a child alone at home? Sometimes it’s difficult to arrange for child care when kids are out of school. Do you have any guidelines as to what to look for that can help make this decision? — BUSY WORKING PARENT IN KANSAS

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Dear Busy Working Parent: I don’t think children should be left alone if there is any other alternative available — after-school programs, YMCA, activities where they will have adult supervision. Too many things can go wrong, and you would never forgive yourself if one of them happened to your child.  
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Hi again, folks: Yes, those italics were mine. But here is a response written by Free-Range Kids reader (slightly edited by me):
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Dear Abby: Your answer is a classic example of what Lenore Skenazy (www.freerangekids.com) refers to as “Worst-First” thinking. If we are encouraged to over-prepare for all the rare, tragic things that could happen, we will end up handicapping  our children’s independence, and our finances, and our  ability to shop alone for brief periods of time.

Can you really not imagine any age when a child is capable of being left alone in their home? Not at 8, 11, 14? Or 17? How is it that these children will ever become capable adults if they don’t get any incremental practice? Is this why, as a professor, I see college students today who are incapable of facing the regular bumps and glitches of daily life without calling on their parents to fix their problems for them?

Perhaps instead of “never” we can look for indicators that a child is capable of spending short time periods home alone: Are they generally responsible? Do they know basic safety measures?

Instead of infantilizing our children for fear of remote risks, we need to empower them. If you will recall, just a few decades ago, we did that very thing. I was a latchkey kid at nine and babysitting at 11. In the 70s, this was regular practice. Before you argue that the world was safer then, note that the crime statistics show that life is safer today than it has been any time since about 1973.

In that time on my own as a child, I learned how to feed and clean up after myself, how to take care of others, and who to call when I needed help.  I developed the confidence that I could take care of myself. That experience was invaluable and remains with me to this day. — Kari B.

“Is My Son a Sex-Offender?”

Hi Readers — Last week I was on a radio show where the host wondered how I could endorse the idea of kids playing outside, now that we KNOW we are surrounded by “sexual predators.” I replied that Sex Offender Registry is confusing because some people on it really do (or at least did) prey on children, but many of them don’t or won’t, and we can’t always tell which is which.  I didn’t get a chance to say this, but  a study by the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board — Georgia! Not a state wussy on crime — concluded that five percent of the people on its registry were “clearly dangerous.” It also determined that just over 100 of the 17,000 (1 in 170) were actual “predators” — people who feel compelled to commit sex crimes. (Read this Economist article for more info.) Here the story of one of the other 169:
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I know in some ways this isn’t exactly Free-Range, but last Saturday night my 17-year-old son was interrupted by a Sheriff’s deputy while “parking” with a 15-year-old girl.  I hadn’t heard about her, but apparently they’d been bf/gf for a few weeks.
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After I read about the cases of similar situations that resulted in the teenage boy ending up on the Sex Offender Registry, I immediately looked up the age of consent in my state, Oklahoma, which is 16.  Then I sat down with my son and explained the possible consequences of having sex with an under-age girl.  But I guess it didn’t carry much weight coming from mom.
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Now, I think the deputy handled the situation perfectly (even in a somewhat old school way):  he made both kids call their parents and tell them what they had been doing.   The deputy also gave them a good, strong lecture that with a present-day twist: he included the possibility of sex offender registration.  My son drove, so when the situation was over he was sent home in his vehicle, but the girl’s mother had to come pick her up.
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I have to admit that I was initially amused by it, once my son established that the phone call was pretty much the extent of the deputy’s actions.  He had been doing what teenagers do, and getting interrupted by the officer seemed almost like a scene from a ’60s movie.  I have done my best to prepare him for a safe and healthy sexuality, not only has he had comprehensive sex-ed from myself and our church (Unitarian, so it’s a different approach than many churches) about disease and pregnancy prevention, but I have also talked with him about maturity and emotional consequences for both himself and his partner.  I know from personal experience that teens are going to do what they’re going to do, so my approach has always been about sex being a healthy experience, physically and psychologically.  We’ve had open dialog since he was about 5 or 6 when he asked me, “What is sex?”  My response:  “Sex is a special kind of hugging and kissing that grown-ups do when they really love each other a whole lot.”
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My first question when he got home was “Were you using/about to use/have ready to use a condom?”  He couldn’t have said “YES!!!” faster or more emphatically.  My second question was, “How old is she?” He said, “Two years younger than me,” which didn’t take a lot of math to figure out that there was potential for real trouble involved.  When I started to remind him of our prior talk, he told me about the deputy’s warning and it was obvious just how hard it hit my son then.  (He event commented that he was going to check ID in the future to make sure a girl was at least 16.)  But I still wasn’t concerned because there was every indication that the event was over and done.
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Unfortunately, that may not be the case.
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The young lady told my son that her mother wants to talk to me.  I understand that she’s upset and I said she was welcome to do so and my son sent the girl my number last night, so she could call me.  Her mother is mad — extremely so — and wants my son to be punished.  Harshly.  Possibly legally.  When he told me that, I started to get nervous and at that point sat down with my son and asked him exactly what happended that night — how far did they go?
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Thankfully, due to our existing relationship on the subject, he was able to tell me honestly and clearly.  They were interrupted before they made it to intercourse, but had progressed to oral sex.
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My son also told me that the girl and her mother have a somewhat contentious relationship and that the mother sometimes calls her daughter “slut” and “whore.”  I believe that the mom is really lashing out at my son out of anger, rather than honestly thinking he did something to hurt her daugher.
Now I’m concerned we should contact an attorney just to cover his butt for whatever may come from this.
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Am I overreacting?  We barely get by as it is and have no money for legal fees.  And if I do need to consult an attorney, what kind?  Criminal/defense?  How do I find a good one, especially with my financial situation?  I’m scared for my son who was just being a normal teenager. What should I do? — Scared Mom
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Dear Scared Mom: I’m scared, too, but I have no legal background. I don’t know if it makes sense to get an attorney just in case things escalate, or possibly wait for them to die down. Thus, I am asking the readers for their advice, and I am wishing you and your son every bit of good luck and fairness. — L.

Possible sex offenders?

Help! Very Old People! They Will Hurt Our Children!

Hi Readers — Here’s a heart-sinker:  A Minnesota community doesn’t want a facility for Alzheimer’s patients to move in, because old people, even though supervised, might hurt  — or even traumatize by their very weirdness — their kids. So much for diversity. So much for community. So much for compassion.

As John Tevlin writes in this great Star Tribune column:

Nearly everyone who spoke against the facility had concerns that their children might be attacked or see an elderly adult do something inappropriate.

But Janelle Meyers, housing director for Prairie Lodge Assisted Living unit, also run by Ecumen in Brooklyn Park, said children are regular guests there. The caretakers of the most severely affected people are highly trained. “They know the residents very well, and can anticipate when problems are most likely to occur,” she said.

Meyers brings her son to work frequently, and there is a day-care center directly across the street.

“They bring the kids here on a regular basis,” Meyers said. “They do crafts and sing. It’s good for both of them to have contact with each other.”

“Some people don’t have respect for older adults,” Meyers said. “They are undervalued, and, personally, I think that’s so sad.”

I think so, too. And the fear of old people seems as misguided as it gets. I guess the same old truth prevails: The more separated we are from any group of people — by race or creed or, now, age — the more we begin to fear them. Even geezers. — Lenore