Are we taking our quest for safety a bit too far?
Jeanne Sager: I could hear the clucking across the playground. The tsk, tsk of a judgmental older woman made my eardrums ache, the hissing sound like a rattler ready to strike.
And she did, even as I pushed my 4-year-old toward the parking lot in desperation to avoid the confrontation that I knew was coming.
I wasn't angry at my 4-year-old.
All she'd done, after all, was throw her arms around a little boy in her swimming class and kiss him. Full on the lips. "Goodbye, Dylan (name changed to protect the not-so-sexually-harassed)!"
She was so happy, she was skipping, bubbling over with the pride of putting her face underwater. "I did ten bobs, Mommy! And did you see who's in my class? Did you see, did you?"
I saw. And I heard, too. Her joy at seeing a friend, and the sexualizing of an innocent gesture by a 4-year-old child. A gesture that earned me a warning by an unknown woman that I had "best get a handle on my child before someone thinks the wrong thing."
Too late. Because as this woman was warning me that I could be staring down the barrel of a lawsuit, she'd made it clear that she saw merit to the claims against toddlers across the country.
By giving credence to the theory that innocent actions should be stamped out lest a litigious-minded individual kick things into gear, she proved why these lawsuits are successful. Kids aren't kids anymore. They're money waiting to be made in the form of warning shots to the parental establishment: Keep your kids in line, or else.
What happened to the words "frivolous lawsuit"? As one lawyer I know has told me many times: "People can bring a lawsuit for anything. It doesn't mean the suit is with merit."
Why then are we living scared?
The sexual harassment allegations against preschoolers, the suspensions of kids my daughter's age -- and sometimes younger -- have no doubt grown. According to an ABC News report last summer, "166 elementary students were suspended in Maryland [in 2007] for sexual harassment, including three preschoolers, 16 kindergartners, and 22 first-graders. In Virginia, 255 elementary students were suspended for offensive sexual touching [in 2007] as well."
The allegations have become no less newsworthy as they've become more frequent. That's the good news: they read as headlines best linked with the letters WTF or OMG.
A sampling of responses to the story of a 4-year-old who was put into an in-school suspension for hugging a teacher's aide in Texas in 2006 included indignant letters to the principal and a prescription for a "swift kick up the pants" for the "prudish and ridiculous attitude towards an affectionate toddler" by the aide.
But read on, and the fearmongers drop in with this tidbit: "You can't be too careful these days, with everyone being lawsuit happy. What if she didn't document the incident and the child did something even worse down the road?"
To borrow a phrase from the post 9/11 world: if we don't stop the kids from hugging, we let the litigious win.
Or is it the other way around? Hasn't the woman who "tsk, tsked" at my daughter for an innocent smooch on her buddy's mouth just allowed those who would bring a lawsuit to force the innocence from her young lips?
To ignore the fact that there are young children committing true sexual crimes is irresponsible. Justice Department statistics have shown the age of people charged with sexually-based offenses is trending downward, and the Safer Society reported that the number of sexually-based treatment programs for kids under twelve has been growing since the late eighties from none to more than four hundred as of 2002. Forty percent of sexual crimes committed against kids under 6 were committed by other kids. Unfortunately, these same groups have been able to link past abuse in many of the children who are now abusing others.
But compare the 33,000 kids under 18 accused of forcible rape, violent and nonviolent sexual offenses in 2004 with U.S. Census figures showing more than 73 million kids under 18. That's less than one percent of the juvenile population committing some sort of sexual act, no matter how heinous.
And for this we put the kibosh on hugging in high schools lest someone say that a teen girl or boy was inappropriately touched at an awkward age when they crave touch the way I craved grease during my pregnancy. And we hiss at little girls overcome with happiness to see a nursery school friend in a summer swim class.
Fortunately, her ears were still a bit water-logged.
|Jeanne Sager is a mom to Jillian and writer from upstate New|
York. She's strung words together for Babble.com, Kiwi Magazine and
AOL's Holidash, and she shares her award-winning weekly newspaper
column on her blog, Inside Out.