Men as Babysitters: What’s So Scary?

Hi Readers! Over at Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode at the NY Times, there’s a really frank and nicely written piece by a woman who came to the exact opposite conclusion I did. She was mulling whether or not to hire a male babysitter for her child. On the one hand, the young man she interviewed seemed like a dream: He grew up in the nabe, his mom ran a day care center, he sounded warm on the phone and had great references. On the other hand…

He was male.

In the end, surprised by her own misgivings about men,  the writer decided to hire a woman instead. And she wonders if she did the right thing, or ended up missing out on a great babysitter and possibly a family friend.

When our kids were a little younger, my husband and I hired some male babysitters for about a year each and didn’t really worry about their gender. In fact, we hoped they’d take the kids outside and have them playing a lot, so we sort of pigeonholed them that way: more sporty than women babysitters. (We were wrong.) And it’s true that I have sons and the writer of the Motherlode piece has a daughter, so I can see where if she’d had sons instead, she might have been a little less leery.

But what I love about the essay and regret about her decision is how much she realized her decision was based on a creeping prejudice against men around kids. While, yes, statistically I’m sure men ARE more likely to molest kids than women are, the fact is MOST men AND most women are not out to molest kids at all.

The fear of perversion is so front and center in our culture that it sometimes seems to color our perceptions of almost all male/child interactions. In some day care centers, male employees aren’t allowed to change diapers by themselves. The number of guys for whom diaper changing is a turn-on must be tiny indeed and yet, it is top of mind.

Then there’s the suspicion of any man snapping a kid’s picture: Is it for porn? And any man near a school: Is he a predator? There are parents who don’t want a male pre-k teacher, and others who wonder why an 80-year-old codger is willing to teach woodworking to the local kids. A generation ago, we’d see him as Gepetto-like. Now “Worst-First” thinking kicks in: He likes kids, he wants to be around them…oh my god!

This prejudice is just as corrosive as any other, and it comes from the same source: Fear. Fear reinforced daily by TV shows highlighting the saddest stories, the worst individuals, the least likely/most sexually titillating events. And movies that revel in sadism. And books that take us inside so many “twisted” minds that twisted seems the new normal. And these lessons ping back and forth, echoing endlessly, “Our children are at risk!”

I would never say that absolutely all men (or women) are good, or that no child has ever been harmed by a babysitter, or even that this woman made the wrong choice. In fact, I’m thrilled that she wrote the piece so that we can talk about the problem: Seeing all men as predators.

And so, here we are, talking. And, hopefully, peeling away at the prejudice, inching our way toward some sanity. — Lenore

Guest Posts: Why I Didn’t Help A Lost Girl (And Troubled Boy)

Hi Readers — I got both these letters today and felt that together they make the point: We must start letting men know we TRUST them around kids. Thinking the “worst first” of all males is not only insulting, it is damaging the fabric of our society, pulling men away from their age-old jobs of  protecting and mentoring. (Yes, women fulfill those roles, too.  But the more the merrier!)

“You like kids? You must be a creep!” is a weird, paranoid, Nancy Grace-induced attitude. No one’s saying we should be naive about child abuse. But to have child abuse top-of-mind every time any man has anything to do with a kid is, well, perverted! Talk about ironic! — L.

Why I Didn’t Help a Lost Little Girl by Alan, in Utah

Our city had a carnival today.  While my 3 youngest boys were off at the dunk tank. (*Gasp* — by themselves!  With money even!) I was sitting at a table with all of the boys’ stuff (shoes, socks, stuff from the parade) when I noticed a little girl separated from her mom.  It must have just happened because she looking around bewildered at first, but within just a few moments she was crying pretty hard.

My first instinct was to go and see if she point out her mom, but Iwas worried about someone accusing me of something and being arrested and my boys coming back to an empty table.  So I sat and watched uncomfortably while this poor little girl became more and more agitated and crying more and more loudly.

Now, the part that bothers me the most about this is that there was a group of three women standing not 5 feet from this little girl.  They ignored her completely.  I finally decided to get up and do something and had gotten just a few feet from this little girl when one of the women butted ahead of me and asked her if she’d lost her mother.  As she escorted the child past she hissed, “Pervert!” at me.

I kept thinking of that poor man in England who saw the little girl walking who ended up drowning and was too afraid to stop and help her. I remember thinking when I heard that that there was no way I’d just drive off and leave her … but I know better now.  I’m much less likely to help a distressed child because I’m too afraid of what might
happen to my own kids.  And that’s just sad. — Alan

And here’s the other note

Why I Didn’t Help A Lost-seeming Boy, by “Philosodad”

“Stranger Danger” does cut both ways. Over the fall and winter I used to take my son to a playground closer to my daughter’s daycare. The kids there would ask me to play quarterback in the pickup football game (and let my three-year-old play, which was awesome). This was a lot of fun for everybody and gave the kids an unbiased referee (me), a quarterback who could throw deep passes (me), and a kid with a *brand new football* (my son), which is more or less pickup football nirvana.

One of the kids, who didn’t have a dad at home, got very attached to me… told me all his stories, wanted to stand close to me, wanted approval, Dad stuff, I guess. And because of this whole “stranger danger” mentality, I could just sense this sort of wary disapproval from the few other parents at the playground (none of whom were playing with any kids, not even their own) who just sort of watched. Watchfully.

I felt weird about the situation, so I just stopped going to that playground. Which was probably the wrong thing to do. It’s sad that even though I knew that I wasn’t a creepy stranger, I was so worried about being seen as a creepy stranger that I gave up a perfectly good opportunity to mentor a troubled kid for a few hours a week. — Philosodad

Oh no! A grown male near a child!

A Man in Uniform (Is Trusted. Otherwise — Forget It)

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter from a 22-year-old paramedic in Queensland, Australia, where folks, too, seem to suffer from the modern-day problem I call “Worst-first thinking.” What I mean is: When an adult and a child interact, onlookers often assume the worst, first. Like so — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: So, it was a training day the other day.  For lunch we decide to meet at the local park. Picture this: a dozen paramedics, six ambulances, a few assessors all sitting around a park enjoying our lunch.

A mother comes up with two small children.

A crew (one male, one female) shows the children through their ambulance and puts on the lights for them (note: small children + flashing lights = much joy).

The male paramedic comes back and jokes how if he wasn’t in uniform he would have been lynched for showing children through his ambulance. And then an interesting conversation begins amongst the males of our group.

The uniform vs. no uniform.

How when they are in uniform the males are allowed to talk to children.

But when they are in civilian clothing they do that only at their own risk.

How when children in the back seat of a car wave at the ambulance we wave back.

How when we are in our own car we do, too.

But, God help you if you’re male and the parents catch you waving at their kids.

As one male paramedic summed it up: “You have to wave for long enough to make the kids smile. But short enough so that the parent’s don’t come chasing after you screaming PAEDOPHILE!”

But what happens when the risk outweighs the joy in seeing a child smile? — Baby Paramedic

Outrage of the Week #2! British Airways Treats All Men as Pervs

Dear Readers: Businessman Mirko Fischer is disgusted with British Airways for treating all men as perverts and I hope he sues their pants off (as it were).  Here’s the deal:

The airline’s policy states that a grown male is not allowed to sit next to any child he doesn’t know.  It doesn’t matter if the kid’s parents are elsewhere on the plane, the revolting pervert…er…possessor of a Y chromosome MUST change his seat or the plane will not take off.

I am so on Fischer’s side! His suit arises from a trip he and his 6-months-pregnant wife were taking. His wife wanted to sit next to the window to be more comfortable, so he sat in the middle seat. Next to him sat a 12-year-old boy. The steward asked Fischer to change his seat and when Fischer refused, the steward ostensibly raised his voice and Fischer felt humiliated. Eventually he did change seats, but he is suing to make his point (and he’ll donate any compensation to charity): It is wrong to treat ALL MALES as a sexual threat to children. As he put it so well:

“Statistically, children are far more likely to be abused by a member of their family. Does that mean that British Airways are going to ban children sitting next to their own parents?”

It really doesn’t surprise me that it is a British airline with this policy, as Britain already demands adults undergo background checks when they want to have ANY contact with children — be it as the class mother who brings in cupcakes, or as the mom or dad who carpools kids more than once a month.

It is a country gone crazy with pervert fear, seeing smut in every smile and depravity in every dad. But the best way to protect kids from abuse is not to separate them from the entire adult male population. It is to teach them to say no to untoward advances, and report on anyone or anything creepy.

A creepy, weird, sex-obsessed airline, for instance. — Lenore

Outrage of the Weekend: Eek! A Male!

Hi Free-Rangers — Speaking of our growing terror of anyone with a Y chromosone, read this:

My husband, who taught kindergarten Sunday School, is no longer allowed to help out with the preschoolers.  At all. Why?  A child fell down and hurt herself, and while comforting her he gave her a kiss.  On the forehead.  And apparently another parent saw this and assumed he was some sort of sicko.  A month earlier he had a child in his class pass out napkins before snack and she went home and told her parents that she was the special helper in Mr. X’s class.  They switched their child’s class.  99% percent of parents loved him, because of a couple of paranoid parents, and a church afraid of being sued, everyone is suffering.  The kids come up to him and ask why he isn’t their teacher anymore.  What is he supposed to say?

Thoughts on The Bus (About Men)

Hi Readers — On the bus going across town today my husband and I sat behind a girl of about 13. No one sat next to her, even though a couple of folks were standing. This reminded me of my long-ago trip to Turkey. When I was there  in the 1980s, at least, men were not allowed to take an empty seat next to a woman.

I don’t know if this was law or custom, but the thinking seemed to be that men are too rude, easily excited or perverse  to sit next to women. In other words: Their entire gender is guilty, or at least gross. And I worry that that’s the direction we’re headed now, too. Except instead of worrying for our womenfolk, we worry for our kids.

Lately I have been hearing so many stories of people afraid of ANY men around their kids: Moms who won’t let their 9-year-olds use the men’s bathroom. Parents who won’t let their daughter be the first or last kid on the school bus, because the driver is a male (and God knows what could happen)! Even a parent who pulled her kid out of a pre-school class taught by a male teacher — because why would any man want to help  kids for any decent reason? (For the record, my younger son had a male pre-school teacher — gay, even — who was the best ever!)

Last week I heard a horrible story from a mom — call her Ellen — whose own sister won’t let her son be around Ellen’s husband, ever. Why not? The sisters live several states apart, but on one visit Ellen’s husband taught this boy, his nephew, how to make shelves and then gave him some tools. A few years later the uncle saw his nephew again and wrestled with him. This was enough for the sister to assume he was  “grooming” her son for a sexual relationship and now all bets are off.

So are all family visits. 

Let us reiterate something here: Most people — male and female — are good. Prejudice is not. Do we want to become a country where we forbid men from sitting next to kids on buses? As one reader wrote so brilliantly to this blog: “being around kids while male” is the new “driving while black.”

I’m starting to feel bad for men. And kids. — Lenore