To the strange man on the bus: don't talk to my son again
Were scare tactics better for protecting our children than today's politically correct 'Stay Safe' programmes?
Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30
Last week, my eight-year-old son made a "new friend" on the bus. He was with two dozen other scab-kneed sun-blocked kids on the top deck. They were on a summer camp trip into town.
My lad firmly believes that strangers are just friends you've never met - no doubt he has a great future in the kitchen at parties. The only problem is that his new friend was "about Dad's age". Dad is 48.
He told me about the new friend as we did the shopping in Aldi, tossed spuds and celery into the trolley, and I tried to feign casual curiosity, but already my back was up. The sticker with his name written in black Sharpie was still stuck to his Minecraft T-shirt. The man began the conversation by complimenting him on his name.
"He was really nice, Mam." "Oh yeah? What did you talk about?"
"He wanted to know if I went to [X] school."
"And what did you say?"
"And what did he say?"
"He asked where I went to school?"
"Did you tell him?"
"Yeah… am I in trouble?"
"No, of course not...Anything else?"
"My age - and what class I'm in…"
Who quizzes a child they don't know on the bus? Most people I've asked say they wouldn't. But isn't it awful that every adult is perceived as a threat to a child? We are afraid, but we don't want our children to be, so we deliver nebulous anxiety-ridden sermons about something called 'Stranger Danger' - which may as well be a Justin Bieber song for all the resonance it has with children still too young to be burdened with the unholy truth about where babies really come from.
The school my son told his new friend about teaches something called the 'Stay Safe' programme. All primary schools have signed up to it. It teaches kids about good secrets and bad secrets, appropriate and inappropriate touching, the difference between strangers and trusted adults. It presents them with scenarios and gets them to respond. Parents sign their children's worksheets and answer any awkward questions.
In the box where he was supposed to draw a good secret, my son drew a kitten. On a colouring page of youngsters splashing in a swimming pool, he gave me a lecture on water safety. The purpose of that sheet was to colour the swimsuits to illustrate the private areas of your body. My kid was more concerned that nobody fell off the deep end. At his age, I was in a rural national school with no Stay Safe programme. Yet, for all the 'children should be seen and not heard' ethos of the time, I was better equipped to look out for perverts than my son is.
Why? Aside from the fact that it was peculiar for adults to take an interest in you, scaring children was a way to protect them. That's what the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was all about. The Pied Piper: the same thing. And while every small girl sympathised with Little Red Riding Hood, they understood that if the wain had gone the way her mother told her, she would not have encountered the wolf in the first place. You could call it an introduction to victim blaming.
Of course, we want to spare our children the violent ghouls and nefarious hobgoblins that populate the cautionary tales that for centuries, strived to keep them safe. But I'm not convinced political correctness, bolstered by cotton-wool parenting in the name of preserving innocence and stamping out fear, is doing a better job of it.
We have come so far with child protection, and are finally willing to swallow the unpalatable truth that most child abuse happens within the sanctity of the family. Beyond the home, anyone who works or volunteers to be around children has been subject to Garda vetting since last April. So where do the predatory creeps who groom and abuse children go now? Public transport?
I don't think the man who befriended my son was a paedophile. I think he was too stupid to realise that quizzing a small child is unfair on them. Children are repeatedly told never to talk to strangers, yet to always be polite to adults. How can an eight-year-old unravel this contradiction and know how to behave, especially when he's flattered by adult attention?
It didn't sit right with him, so he told me about it.
If you're reading this, Man On The Bus, you might be a grand fella, but I don't want my son talking to strangers on public transport. He's confused about how to behave if he meets you again. He has my permission to be rude and get away from you. I told him to make a bit of a racket about it too, because he won't get into trouble.
If that offends you, tough. Take it like a man.
Aingeala Flannery is the producer of Neil Delamere's 'Sunday Best' on Today FM @missflannery