Bad Advice: 'If You Get Lost, Look for a Mommy'

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As the world heads to the mall this season, a lot of us tell our kids, "If you get lost, look for a mommy."

The unspoken corollary being: "Because a man might drag you off and dye your hair in the bathroom and smuggle you out and rape you." (See Snopes.com for the truth about that.)

What is the message we're giving our kids? "Any man could possibly be a perv." And as that message ricochets through pop culture right back to us, we, too, have started to distrust any male who has anything to do with a child.

A friend just told me that her daughter is taking flute lessons from a fellow in his 80s who barely charges them anything. Good-hearted geezer who loves music and moppets? Or dirty old man luring prey to his lair? My friend is delighted with the guy, her daughter loves him. But other friends are appalled: Why would you trust someone like that?

Geez, how did we ever trust Santa? Talk about an old guy grooming kids with gifts!

So, now we're in an era when being male is a little like being black in the pre-Civil Rights South: Accuse a man of anything and a lot of folks are all too willing to believe it. How did we get to this point? It's something I've been puzzling about for three years, and then last week I finally met up with Paula Fass, a historian and author of "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America." She may have actually nailed when predator panic began: It all goes back to the abduction of Etan Patz in 1979.

When that blonde-haired, blue-eyed 6-year-old disappeared on his way to school, Fass says his parents believed "for a long time" that he'd probably been taken by a lovelorn woman who wanted a child to raise as her own. The public thought so, too. It was only months later that the pedophile theory bubbled to the surface, aided by a lurid novel about the topic. And when it did -- it exploded.

There is no evidence of an increase in predators these past 30 years, but the number of books, movies, articles and TV shows about them shot off the charts. The idea of beasts snatching children off the street is the easiest story for the media to sell us: It's got outrage, horror and sex! It's the news equivalent of a hamburger, fries and a shake -- bad for us, but who can resist?

After Etan Patz, we were swimming in stories and pictures of missing kids, usually without any context (like, were they really taken by strangers? or by a parent in a custody dispute?) We are swimming in them to this day, constant reminders of innocents in peril at the hands of men.

And so we tell our kids, "Look for a mommy." And as we pass Santa, we watch him out of the corner of our eye. He'd just better not wave at our kids.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.