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 mid 60s, 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 something 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.
Me: Ugggh! I’M NOT CHARLIE!
Fast forward to today. I’m standing in line at the grocery check stand. In front of me sits 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.
Today’s children are raised on stranger danger. Any man who takes an interest in children is seen as a potential abductor or pervert.
When did men become scary?
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 missing 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 and constant exposure to missing children messages, 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.
Yet even as childhood gets safer, parents and society get more worried about child safety. Authorities are now arresting parents for letting their children walk to a park or for leaving them in a locked car for five minutes.
In the past kids roamed their neighborhoods unsupervised until dark. People spent more time out in public. Everyone stood in lines. But today’s highly managed youngsters no longer have many chances to mix with men they do not know.
This is particularly tragic for boys who are being raised in “man deserts.” Many sons of single moms 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 a dearth of male interaction. Young ladies need banter with adult men to build their confidence in social situations and to prepare them to compete in their careers. 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 a mature man talks and thinks – 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 many churches have begun requiring 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 they may be embarrassed to have 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 shining a spotlight on the interactions of men and boys.
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. Single men said that male mentors, friends, and fathers were their greatest spiritual influencers. Mothers were near the bottom of their list.
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 — no, desperately needed in our children’s ministries. I’ve always said that boys should have male teachers in church. Men are harder to recruit and train, but they are so valuable because they are increasingly rare in the lives of the young.