There’s gotta be room between teaching kids ‘Stranger Danger’ and never letting them out of your sight.
I’m an overprotective father. And I’m fairly certain I know the reason why.
I was about five years old when I was raped in a park toilet by a stranger.
Fast forward 40 years and thousands of dollars spent lining the pockets of various counsellors and psychologists, I still have nightmares about it and I still can’t use public toilets without an overwhelming feeling of dread.
I’ve also got two young kids and I find myself being hyper-vigilant whenever we’re out in public anywhere.
That sucks but it’s something I’m working on changing.
The way we used to be
Aside from that one time when I was little, my childhood was amazing. It was the 1970s in suburban Sydney, and all the neighbourhood kids would be running around barefoot, riding bikes without helmets or playing cricket in the middle of the street.
We had been taught all about ‘Stranger Danger’ – not getting into someone else’s car if you didn’t know them, not taking lollies from strangers, and letting a grown-up know if someone’s behaving strangely.
But that was about it. The only rules were “play where we can see you from the house”, and “it’s time to come home when the streetlights turn on”.
By the time I was seven (the birthday I got a new BMX bike) the first rule was completely out the window.
I’d set off on my bike and ride all over the suburb, only turning back when the streetlights came on.
Times have changed
These days, however, things are very, very different – and it’s not just me who’s hovering over my kids, keeping a wary eye on anyone who gets too close to them.
I had my kids at their favourite park playground a couple of years back. It’s not a big playground, but it’s fenced in and there’s enough equipment that the boys don’t get bored for at least two or three hours.
There were two other families there – a family of four, and a father and daughter.
The father was sitting on a bench at the far end of the playground, dicking about on his phone, when his girl slipped while she was climbing a ladder and got stuck upside down.
It happened about a metre or two from me and her dad didn’t notice straight away – I instinctively went over to help her before she could fall on her head.
Her dad must have looked up from his phone about a second before I reached her. I barely had her feet on the ground when he arrived next to me, screaming.
“Don’t touch my f-ckin’ kid!”
“Dude … she slipped and was stuck upside down. I was only trying to help.”
“Keep your f-ckin’ hands off my kid. Touch her again and I’ll f-ck you up.” And with that, he grabbed his daughter and stormed off.
And I thought I was the overprotective one.
How did it come to this?
I’ve heard similar stories from lots of blokes over the years.
Dads who have been hounded out of parents’ rooms at shopping centres by overprotective (and blatantly paranoid) mothers.
Guys getting the stink-eye from other parents when all they’re doing is watching their own kids play in the park.
I think the reason for the problem is the media saturation of sexual abuse.
It seems like every single day there’s another bloody story about it in the media, exaggerated by the tabloids to sell newspapers, simply by scaring the shit out of parents.
Not to belittle the fact that it’s happening – and how relentlessly foul it is – but the way it’s breathlessly reported by the media is verging on hysteria.
Sure, it’s important that we talk about it as an issue – being aware of it happening has been really helpful in stopping it from happening in the first place.
But honestly, I reckon it’s time for the media to tone it down a bit. Tell us about it, but stop sensationalising it and making everyone paranoid.
What can we do?
First up, we all need to realise that being overprotective is not good for kids.
Kids learn through play. Games that get them all hyper and excited like playing chasies or trying to stay upright on a tricycle, expose them to something called “light acute stress”.
It’s a good kind of stress – not the stomach ulcer-inducing bad kind. And some experts say it’s a super-important part of growing up.
Associate Professor Oddgeir Friborg is a Norwegian psychologist specialising in resilience, and how it can be used to protect and promote mental health. He reckons it’s actually good for children to experience stress.
“Everyone needs to experience stress. This is how we learn to solve challenges, build knowledge and acquire new skills,” says Friborg. “Children should also be allowed to experience stress.”
“You can compare stress to vaccines that provide resistance. As long as the stress is within the range that one can tolerate, it can be considered healthy.”
So it’s important to let your kids experience the thrills and spills of life with enough freedom to make the small mistakes now, so they can avoid the bigger ones later.
Secondly, overprotective parents need to calm the f-ck down. Yes, that includes me.
Despite what the media is telling us, not every man in a windowless van is a bloodthirsty serial killer.
We could even learn a lesson from our dear old Federal Government, who gave us this immortal line in response to terror threats: Be Alert, Not Alarmed.
Yes, if there’s some scumbag in a trench coat rubbing one out behind a tree at the park, then it’s time to call the cops.
But by treating every single person we don’t know as a threat, we’re constantly on edge in public – and kids are super-good at picking up on when mum or dad are feeling stressed.
The last thing we want to be doing is making a fun trip to the park into a memory of stress and suspicion for our kids – something that could actually stay with them forever.