No one has ever accused me of being an overprotective parent.
I use hotel babysitting services in random foreign cities. I let my six year old walk alone to the corner store. Once, when my youngest was a newborn, I paid the bill in a pizza restaurant and loaded his two older brothers into car only to have the waitress come running out behind me with a car seat in her arms and a look of pure horror on her face. “I think you forgot your baby!” she cried. To which I responded, “Seriously? Again?”
But I do have one rule many of my parent friends think is extreme. It’s simple and I enforce it where ever possible, virtually without exception, and intend to do so until my kids are well into their teens. It is this: Never alone in a room with a man.
Never alone in a room with a male teacher. Or a male doctor. Or a housepainter or a lawyer or birthday party clown. I don’t care if you’re dying of thirst and he’s the coolest, nicest soccer coach in league with a fridge full of ice cold Gatorade. “Grab your teammate and then get your drink from the coach’s office,” I tell my kids. I am honest with them about my rule and the reasons why. Some men are not to be trusted. And frankly, if the coach is a conscientious guy (which he probably is), he’ll know not to invite a kid into a room alone in the first place.
There are exceptions of course: my husband and all my kids' grandfathers and step-grandfather. I also bend the rule for a few men I know really, really well. Like well enough that I’ve observed them over a period of several years and have spent holidays together. Both my brother-in-laws, for instance, gets a pass, as do a couple of my good friends’ husbands. But beyond that? Never alone in a room with a man.
Think that sounds anxious? Hyper-vigilant? Completely whack-a-doo? I disagree and here’s why. Of all the things we fear and guard against as parents, child sexual abuse is, unfortunately, one of the most likely to happen. That’s not being hysterical, but stating a simple fact. I could overwhelm you with terrifying statistics but just let me put it this way: How many people do you know who’ve been kidnapped? Now in light of that number, think of all the precautions many of us take in course of modern life to guard against that admittedly infinitesimally small possibility. I’m thinking of stuff that most of us grew up doing which is now almost universally viewed as unsafe, such as letting primary-school kids walk to school or play in the park unsupervised.
Now compare that extremely small figure of childhood kidnap victims you might know to the number of people in your acquaintance who’ve been sexually abused, molested or even just “interfered with” as a child?
Assuming the latter number is much higher, consider where and how that abuse happened. I’m going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess: I bet happened alone in a room with a man.
It’s not as easy as we might wish it was to determine when, how or if our children are safe. What is easy, is making a rule regarding your kid's safety and sticking to it. In fact, I’ve found most child-friendly organizations adhere to my rule already, whether casually or a matter of formal policy. I should add that I have absolutely no problem with any carers, male or female, touching or even cuddling and kissing my children if it's appropriate in the course of their work. Caring for children necessarily involves appropriate touching, ideally in a loving, kind and affectionate way. So go ahead and touch my kids—just don’t do it alone in a room, especially if you're a man.
I'm aware that my rule is really not fair to the vast majority of men who are not paedophiles or sexual predators and with whom my kids would probably be entirely 100 percent safe alone in a room for days on end. I also understand that taking these sorts of precautions may make life especially tricky for men who choose to work with small children in caring professions like medicine, teaching or social work—in other words, some of the best and most admirable men around.
I believe that ultimately, in this instance, my parental duty to protect my kids trumps my duty as a feminist to treat men and women equally in every scenario, regardless of the risk. Child abusers do exist. They are undoubtedly operating in our midst. And they are also almost always men. I don't know precisely why this is and I'm certainly not happy about it. But as a woman and a former child, I also know this: To be wary of men in a sexual capacity is not a hysterical or unfounded position—it’s just common sense.
We know that the most pathological child abusers gravitate, for obvious, unpleasant reasons, toward jobs in which they will have access to children. Think of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics Team doctor who was recently sentenced to more than two hundred years in prison for his crimes. Nassar, it’s believed, abused dozens, possibly hundreds, of young girls, often while their parents sat in the treatment room chatting to him (he used a towel and placed his own body to hide their view of his hands). Like many pedophiles, Nassar was as charming as he was manipulative. He groomed parents as well as children. He often spoke of his love of children and his desire to "heal" them. His entire life was a construction to grant him unfettered private access to the bodies of children.
As parents, we like to think we have great instincts—that we could spot a paedophile a mile off. In fact, research shows the opposite is often true. The vast majority of children who suffer abuse experience it at the hands of someone they know, and most of them keep it secret out of fear or shame. Pedophiles are very adept at not being detected. They learn how to gain the trust of parents in order to be the exception to the rule.
Take the high-profile example of Michael Jackson—a guy who, on the face of it, was in many ways so creepy he might well have had a parental warning tattooed on his forehead. How could his victims’ parents not have known? Or at least suspected? This is a guy who spoke openly in interviews about how much he loved children, hosted sleepover parties and built a literal theme park in his backyard.
But watching the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, you begin to understand what extraordinary lengths Jackson went to in order to get what he wanted, which was to be left alone in a room with children. He didn’t just charm his victims’ parents, he gave them gifts and holidays and huge sums of money. He spent years eliciting their sympathy, shifting their natural biases in his favour, convincing his intentions were innocent.
It’s heart-breaking to watch these parents admonishing themselves now for letting their sons participate in Jackson’s infamous sleepovers, but it’s important to understand how distorted their own world view had become over months and years of grooming. It’s also important to remember this: If they had followed the rule, it just wouldn’t have happened.