A few months ago, my kids and I met two friends and their children at a nearby playground that’s generally deserted. Twenty or so minutes into our playdate, a nearby MOMS Club meeting ended and a few more mothers showed up with their kids. I happened to know the MOMS Club moms, and we all chatted. Soon, there were about 15 kids running around and to the untrained eye, what’s normally a empty little playground on a weekday morning looked like a busy, active kid mecca.
It didn’t take much time at all for two men to appear, independently. Each man had a book and each man sat on one of three benches on the playground, “reading.”
Often, I try to give people like these guys the benefit of the doubt, but this situation was weird for a number of reasons. This particular playground is on a small, random plot of land that’s part of a much larger city park system. There’s absolutely no reason to be there unless you are either letting your children play or running laps on the track that surrounds the playground. You have to specifically drive to the spot and park your car in the lot built just for that playground. And if you’re childless and want to read, there are plenty of quieter, more picturesque spots (with benches) where the park continues just down the road.
Also, while to a stranger, it would seem from the number of moms and kids on this playground that we couldn’t possibly all know each other and that anyone who showed up would simply blend into the crowd, I actually did know all these moms. I also knew, as a reader, that sitting on a bench that’s eight feet away from a bunch of screaming kids, makes for about the worst reading conditions possible.
In short, the men shouldn’t have been there. The fact that they were there was creepy and it felt creepy and every creepy creep sense I have in my body was on alert at that moment.
I thought of this situation as I read some of the blog posts and Tweets written in the wake of the horrifying abduction and murder of Lieby Kletsky. Online debate is centering around whether we should let our kids go anywhere alone. Whether free-range parenting was to blame. Whether people who don’t have children should be on a playground. In my opinion, these arguments are moot. Creeps are everywhere. You know it and I know it. It doesn’t matter whether you live in New York City or Bell Buckle, Tennessee. It doesn’t matter whether your kids are growing up in the projects or in a multi-million dollar, gated subdivision. It doesn’t matter whether they’re ‘safe’ at school or walking home from day camp. I don’t believe that a single one of us grew up without having at least one run-in with a skeevy adult, whether the adult was male or female, and as a mother, I continue to see weirdos target children, whether it’s by “reading” on a playground or far, far worse.
Yes, this topic is uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s true, and it’s never been more timely. When Punky was a baby, I used to take her sometimes to a popular indoor playcenter at a nearby mall. Every time I went, there was at least one childless man, usually more, sitting on the carpeted stairs surrounding the play area, watching the kids. Every. Time. There’s another large, elaborate playground in my area and there’s almost always some strange man or other in there without kids, sitting in the sandbox or wandering through the wooden play forts. Why is he there?
You tell me.
We all hate to point fingers, but I’ve gotten pretty upfront about handling these situations. When other moms suggest meeting at the larger playground, I tell them frankly that I never take both kids there without my husband, because there’s always a perv there and I can’t keep an eye on both kids at once. And the moms always agree, and laugh a little, because it’s true and they’ve noticed it, too. It’s just not something we talk about, because I guess it’s not very polite.
My stepdaughters deal with it as well. There was the man who exposed himself at the bus stop outside the fence of their high school. And the assistant soccer coach who sent inappropriate e-mails to the 12-year-old girls on his team. And the handsome math teacher, who’d find out when his prettier students turned 18 and then start texting them. I’m sure there have been even more incidents that I don’t even know about. I’m not exactly shocked. The same kinds of things happened to me growing up, too.
Obviously, the vast majority of grown men that women and children encounter are not perverts or creepers. But just as obviously, occasionally one is, and we shouldn’t have to be embarrassed about having to deal with it.
So what can we do as parents to keep our children from being targeted? We can start by communicating with our kids. I’ve begun having “big girl” chats with my seven-year-old daughter, encouraging her to articulate to me the things that are starting to become uncomfortable for her to discuss. Establishing an open line of communication with her now is essential if I want her to keep me informed about embarrassing or uncomfortable things she sees or feels in the future.
We can also teach our kids to ignore the urge to always be “polite” when it comes to dealing with strangers, or even adults they know, whether they’re male or female. If they feel strange or weird or uncomfortable, they need to act on it, and leave the situation if they can, or tell another adult that they trust.
We also have more reason now than ever, as parents, to step outside our comfort zone when it comes to protecting our kids. I couldn’t ask those men at the park to leave, but I did stand right in front of them and catch their eye. I wanted them to know that someone there saw them and believed that what they were doing was weird. No, I wasn’t ‘polite.’ I wasn’t ‘nice.’ But when it comes to keeping my kids safe, sometimes ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ have to go out the window.
It’s hard to think about, but from years of experience, I know that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ my children will encounter a creep, but ‘when.’ The best I can do as a mom is train them in how to recognize what’s going on, listen to their instincts, and act on them.
That’s what I think. How about you?
Image via vastateparksstaff/flickr