Suspicious: men who take an interest in children
I’m standing in line at the grocery store check stand. The year is 1965. I’m four years old.
Suddenly a strange hand pats me on the head. I wheel around to see a man in his 70s, offering me a piece of Beechnut Fruit Stripe Gum. He smiles. I smile. My mother smiles. I take the candy. “What do you say, David?” Mom asks. “Tank you,” I say.
There was a time when it was considered normal for men to interact with children they did not know in public settings. I had these encounters almost every time I went into a bank, a grocery store, a restaurant, a barbershop or a church. Men I did not know would engage me in conversation, tease me, or give me a token gift. Here are some of the games they would play with me:
I’ve got your nose. A man would reach for my face, and then pull his hand away with his thumb squeezed between his index and middle finger. He would show me my “nose” wiggling, only to “put it back on” moments later.
There’s a nickel behind your ear. Men would “find” coins hidden behind my ear, which of course they gave me as a gift.
Hello Charlie. This light teasing game went like this:
Man: Hello Charlie!
Me: My name’s not Charlie.
Man: It’s good to see you Charlie. Have you been working hard, Charlie?
Me: I’m not Charlie!
Man: OK, Charlie. You take care.
“Don’t speak to my child.”
Fast forward to today. I’m standing in line at the grocery store check stand. There’s a four-year-old boy strapped into the cart-seat while his mother places her items on the belt. The lad is wearing an Incredible Hulk T-shirt. “Do you like the Hulk?” I ask him. The boy gives me a surprised look. His mother shoots me a frightened glance. The conversation ends.
We raise our children on stranger danger – the idea that every man we do not know is a potential abductor or pervert. We take it as gospel that it’s dangerous to interact with people with whom we are unacquainted – especially if they are male.
Child abduction first moved to center stage in 1932, when the infant son of aviator Charles Lindberg was kidnapped. It was the dawn of the radio era, and for two months the story gripped a nation. In the 1970s abducted children began appearing on milk cartons, grocery sacks and bulletin boards. The abductions of Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Polly Klaas and of course Amber (Alert) Hagerman were endlessly amplified by 24-hour cable news and the internet.
As a result of these high-profile crimes, many Americans have come to believe that kidnapping and child sexual abuse are on the rise – even though a raft of statistics prove that crime is on the decline and child abductions by strangers are virtually nonexistent in the U.S. today. Most “kidnappings” today occur when a non-custodial parent takes his or her own kids to live in another country.
Yet even as childhood gets safer, parents and society get more worried about child safety. Parents are being arrested for letting their children walk to a park or for leaving them in a locked car for five minutes.
In the past kids ran around unsupervised until dark. People spent more time out in public. Everyone stood in more lines. But today’s highly managed youngsters no longer have many chances to mix with men they do not know.
We grew up seeing abducted kids on milk cartons and TV shows – and it warped our perception of reality. Child abductions by strangers are almost non-existent. Fewer than 100 children were abducted by strangers in the U.S. in 2018.
This is particularly tragic for boys who are being raised in “man deserts.” Many boys today simply do not know how to respond to a man. When a man unexpectedly addresses them they stand dumbfounded. When a coach or mentor challenges them aggressively their first impulse is to withdraw – or quit. Good-natured teasing sends them into a depression. This lack of confidence carries into adulthood, where it hurts their job prospects and results in fewer social and business connections.
Girls are also negatively affected by the silencing of men. Young ladies need banter with adult men to build their confidence in social situations and to prepare them to succeed in the business world. Chats with men help a girl learn how to carry on a conversation with the opposite sex, a skill that comes in handy when she begins dating. Most importantly, casual interaction with men teaches girls how guys talk and think – and how to rebuff unwanted male attention.
Church is one of the few places where men and children still mix – but even there we find tighter control, since most churches conduct background checks for all child-care workers and Sunday school teachers. This new scrutiny might be keeping some men from serving in children’s ministry – for example those with long ago misdemeanors or debts who may be embarrassed to have their pasts revealed.
Also, a general suspicion about men’s motives is causing men to shrink back from any situation in which they could potentially be accused of pedophilia – including volunteering at church. One false accusation can ruin a man’s life in a matter of hours. Recent church sex scandals are making the problem worse.
One false accusation against a man can ruin his life in a matter of hours.
Men are the essential conduit through which faith passes to children. Men exert outsized spiritual influence in the life of the young – particularly young men. Researchers Paul Hill, David Anderson, and Roland Martinson interviewed eighty-eight young men to identify the key relationships through which faith is imparted. Among single men, male mentors, friends, and fathers appear high on the list. Mothers are near the bottom.
Now, if you were the Evil One, trying to sabotage the faith of the next generation, what would your strategy be? Cut godly men out of the lives of kids.
Church leaders need to let men know they are wanted and desperately needed in our children’s ministries. Men are harder to recruit and train, but they are so valuable because they are increasingly rare in the lives of the young. And finally, men teach men to go to church. If your church has a future, it will be because the next generation of men takes its place among the saints.