BLOG: Of stranger danger and parent shaming

Julie Maclellan

I’m so over parent shaming. So very, very, very over it.

The latest thing that got me going? This viral video currently making the rounds on Facebook with the screaming headline: “Abducting child in front of Dad.”

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(If you haven’t seen it, look it up for yourself. I refuse to link to it.)

What follows is a video that shows a dad sitting on a bench at a park while his son (who, by the way, is not a toddler, by any means – he appears to be quite a capable and confident kid) plays on the playground equipment. We see a so-called “stranger” come up and offer the kid a treat, after which kid immediately and unquestioningly follows stranger off the playground, presumably towards a waiting car.

Then we see dad glance up from the phone and start to panic because he can’t see his son. Whereupon we find out the whole damn thing was a set-up because someone (presumably the kid’s mother) wants to “prove” to the dad how easily a kid can disappear when he’s not paying attention. In other words, it’s all the dad’s fault because he had the nerve to look at his phone for the whole sixty seconds (heck, probably even less than that) the thing took.

There are so many problems in this whole set-up that it’s hard to know where to start.

For one thing, and let’s get this clear: IT’S A SET-UP, PEOPLE.

My suspicion is the kid was in on the whole deal, because the child doesn’t react for so much as a second. He follows the presumed “stranger” without a question or a backward glance, and his reaction just doesn’t look natural. Surely even the most independent kid would likely have said something, anything: “My dad’s over there, let me ask him” or “No thanks” or even “What kind of candy?”

Not only that, but the video is by a guy who is quite a social media celebrity known for similar sorts of mean-spirited “social experiments” that supposedly prove points about parenting (among other things) but are really in fact just full-on shaming done to score YouTube hits and social media shares.

Moreover, if the woman in the video was in fact the kid’s mother and she in fact terrified the living daylights out of his father just to make a point that he spends too much time on his phone, then that family has bigger issues than the worry of stranger abduction. Ever heard of, oh, I dunno, rational adult discussion?

But I digress.

The thing that really burns me about this whole set-up is this: It’s all bunk. Not only is it all staged, proving absolutely zero about anything happening in the real world, it’s based on a totally false premise: that somehow our children are at risk of being abducted by strangers if we take our eyes off of them for SO MUCH AS ONE MINUTE.

You know how big the risk of child abduction is in Canada?

Almost non-existent.

Here’s an article from The Walrus that’s well worth reading, but I’ll pull out a paragraph that says what I need to say:

“Of the 41,342 kids reported missing in Canada in 2013, twenty-nine were “abducted by strangers.” But “stranger” in this case just means “not a parent.” In a 2003 study, investigators looked at ninety cases of stranger abductions collected from the previous two years. After eliminating the cases in which the abductor had been known to the family, they arrived at a new number: two. Two kids. Indeed, if you left your child on the corner in hopes of having him abducted, you’d have to wait—by one calculation—200,000 years for it to happen.”

Now read that again.

Twenty-nine children were reported abducted by “strangers.” But “stranger” just means “not a parent”: could be a neighbour, a friend, a coach, a teacher, a relative.

Number actually taken by a stranger in an actual “abduction”: Two.

Moral of the story? Your kid is not going to be taken by a stranger from the park while your eyes are on your phone.

It’s possible, I suppose, in the same theoretical sense that, I don’t know, a meteor falling from the sky and just happening to land where your kid is playing is possible - or perhaps a stray bolt of lightning taking your kid out on the playground. Also possible. Barely.

(As a side note, your child being struck by lightning would actually be more statistically probable, since there are reportedly nine to 10 lightning-related deaths and some 164 lightning-related injuries in Canada per year.)

If we’re talking about actual, statistically measurable “risk,” then yes, there is “risk” involved in leaving the house every day. But by that token let’s get mad at this dad for taking his kid to the park: Doesn’t he know that they could have been in a car accident on the way there? Or been hit by a car crossing the street? Those are real, actual, measurable risks.

But this stranger abduction? The odds of this particular child being taken by a stranger in this particular tiny period of time while his dad is just metres away are so infinitesimal as to be laughable.

And yet, this whole set-up supposedly “proves” that this guy is a terrible dad for having the nerve to look at his phone while his kid plays.

Come again?

For those who have conveniently short memories, may I remind you that not all that long ago, it was considered pretty normal for a parent not to pay attention to their children 24 hours a day. How many of the social media shamers belong to the “go out and be back in time for dinner” generation? 

Moreover, parents these days (and I know, because I have a five-year-old myself) are also under constant fire for being “helicopter” parents. We hover too much. We don’t allow our kids to be independent. We need to encourage kids to do things for themselves. We need to let them take risks, solve problems, find their own way in the world.

Yet somehow we’re supposed to do that by never once looking away from them lest the bogeyman come and steal them away because we had the nerve to want to check Facebook or make a call?

I do wonder if people’s reactions to this video would be as horrified if this dad were doing something other than looking at his phone - if he were, say, cutting the grass while his kid played nearby on the lawn. Or if he were chatting to an elderly neighbour over the fence. Or if he were doing the gardening. Or anything else that made the dad look like he was doing something “worthwhile” rather than sitting on his phone.

It’s not the fact that the dad put the kid at so-called risk that gets people riled. It’s the fact that he dared to look at his damn phone. It’s people who want to be self-righteous about how society has deteriorated and how people don’t have time for actual human interaction anymore. Never mind that we know absolutely nothing about this dad-and-son relationship from this one-minute clip; we shall judge him harshly because we find his pastime less than worthy.

This, too, by the way, is in line with the findings of a study cited in the Walrus article:

“Researchers at the University of California presented 1,328 participants—split roughly evenly between men and women, between those with children and those without—with vignettes involving kids who had been left alone by their parents for less than an hour. The explanations for this act ranged from the selfless (parent volunteering for charity) to the selfish (parent popping out to meet a lover). The study found that the perceived peril faced by each child escalated according to the moral transgression the parents were judged to have committed. The result was a “feedback loop”: the bigger the affront, the greater the threat; the greater the threat, the louder the outrage. In other words, talk of risk was used to rationalize moral disapproval.”

My point? If you looked at this and jumped on the “OMG, he put his son at risk” bandwagon without questioning your thought process for a second, you might want to do a rethink.

There was no risk. And, social media outrage be damned, the dad was doing nothing wrong.

There are no dangerous strangers lurking in the shadows just waiting for us to pick up our phones so they can swoop in and steal our children from us.

Sadly, however, there are a lot of sanctimonious strangers just waiting for us to pick up our phones so they can swoop in and judge us hard.

Enough already.

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