Loco Parentis: DON’T PANIC -The Toast

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swings-641571_1280Aubrey Hirsch’s previous Loco Parentis columns for The Butter can be found here.

Did anyone else’s Facebook feed get completely overrun by this terrifying video of one man’s social experiment on children and strangers? Mine did, and I spent a solid hour being completely horrified by it.

In the video, a man with a puppy asks mothers at the park if they talk to their kids about strangers. The parents all say yes, and he asks for permission to test how well that message has stuck. Once he gets permission, he approaches the child, introduces his puppy, and tells the kid he has more puppies if the kid would like to see them. Then, in every clip, the man and the kid walk off hand in hand toward CERTAIN MOLESTATION AND THEN SLOW, TORTUROUS DEATH (presumably). There’s also a closing shot in each instance of the shocked mother, alone on the bench, her hand covering her mouth, watching her kid walk away with this stranger.

I swear, my heart was pounding so hard it was shaking my sofa. What’s horrifying about this video is not only the ease with which this guy lures the children away, but the speed. We see him do this four times, and it never takes longer than 20 seconds for him to convince the child to come with him. 20 seconds!!!

I think of myself as a pretty responsible parent, but when my kid’s playing at the park, I am often chatting with other parents or answering emails on my phone. I can guarantee I’ve looked away from my happily playing child for intervals much longer than 20 seconds. Some guy with a cute puppy could have kidnapped him a hundred times over by now! I’m practically begging for someone to come and kidnap my kid!

For me, the saddest moment in this YouTube clip of terror comes right at the end, when one disappointed mother explains to her son why he made a bad choice going with the man. She says, “You don’t know him…you know what’s going to happen? You know what could happen? He could take you and then you won’t be with Mommy anymore. Would you want that? Do you love your family?” The kid, obviously scared and ashamed, clings to his mother, buries his face in her neck. He was having such a nice day, playing at the park with his mom, and now he’s feeling afraid of all the adults around him, sad for letting down his mother, and guilty for not properly demonstrating love for his family. That sucks.

I don’t blame the mother; it was a horrifying experience just watching this video, knowing my son was safely in my sightline. I can’t imagine how she must have felt watching her kid walk off with a random guy in a hoodie. But still…I wonder if putting those feelings on her son was necessary. How much sadness should we be willing to create in our children in order to protect them?

At the end of the video, the “stranger” tells us that “over 700 children are abducted a day…over a quarter-million a year.” This, too, is terrifying. So terrifying that I simply had to verify it. To put your mind at ease a bit, this number is only technically correct if you count abductions by family members and acquaintances (by far the most common types). The number for stranger abductions, however, is much, much lower. In 1999 (the most recent year for which data is available), the number was 115 children that year, and they were mostly teenagers (i.e., not lured from the playground by cute puppies).

Compare this to the over 4,000 children who die of accidental injuries each year, about half of those in car accidents. That’s 17 times as many kids dying in car accidents than kidnapped by strangers, but I strap my son into his car seat like five times a day and I rarely give it a second thought. Why? Because he really likes going to his gymnastics class, and joining me for trips to the grocery store. And because I need to take him to daycare so I can get my work done. I am willing to take all kinds of reasonable risks because, in the end, they net me and my son greater happiness than we’d have if we never risked anything at all.

I think it’s important to talk to kids about strangers in age-appropriate ways. But I don’t want to fill my son with fear or shame because there’s an infinitesimally small risk that the guy at the park with the cute puppy is a kidnapper. For now, I want him to engage with the world around him, even if that includes new people and new puppies. He’s still too young to dream up nightmare scenarios of being taken away from his mother, his family. I’d like to keep him that way just a little bit longer, even if that means taking a risk.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brain, Child Magazine and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch.

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