By Lenore Skenazy: The little boys in the little girls' room seem to be getting a lot bigger lately.
The little boys in the little girls' room seem to be getting a lot bigger lately. "We were just at the museum, and I took my son into the women's bathroom with me, and we got some looks," says a mom named Jennifer.
That's not so surprising; her son is 9. He's almost as tall as she is! "'Do I have to go in the girls' bathroom?'" Jennifer recalls him asking. "I hesitated a moment and thought, 'Maybe I should let him go.' But then I panicked."
Bingo! That is exactly the word. We are in the midst of a Pedophile Panic. What communists were to the '50s, pedophiles are today: a horror we imagine under every bed — and inside every stall. The reality, though, is a lot less terrifying.
Nationally, crime has been falling since its peak in the early '90s. Kids today are actually, factually safer than their parents were as kids in the '70s and '80s — and not just because we watch kids more closely. All violent crime is just down, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. So why are we more frightened than ever?
In part — and sort of by dint of habit — we must blame the media. When you can flip from a child rape on "Law & Order" to a child kidnapping on CNN to a child dredged from a swamp on "CSI" (and what a great way to spend a night!), it's almost impossible not to feel as if our kids are in danger 24/7. On TV, they are.
Add to this our current obsession with germs — Purell, anyone? — and bathrooms skeeve us out like never before. But is the men's room really crammed with creeps?
Amy Baxter is a pediatrician who did her fellowship in child sexual abuse. She estimates that she has seen 500 victims, which is very sad. How many of them were violated in a public restroom? "None," she says. Dr. Baxter queried two close colleagues and found that one of them had indeed seen an instance of this crime. Terrible. Another — a leader in the field — had not. Ever.
So it's not that bathrooms are 100 percent safe. Nothing is. But seeing as most child sex abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, the worst-case restroom scenario is rare indeed. And yet we are being urged to protect our kids from it like never before.
"Anyone could be behind that door and anything could happen," said a national advice column recently. And so?
"Invest in a pair of two-way radios." Yes, that's one of the honest-to-goodness suggestions the columnist passed along regarding restroom safety, as if it's so easy for a kid to juggle a walkie-talkie in one hand and ...
Well, anyway. Another suggestion from the column: Have your son talk to you through the door the entire time he's in there. If he stops chatting for a second — barge in!
And speaking of barging in, voilà Suggestion No. 3: Knock on the men's room door and announce that you and your boy are coming in. If no one shouts, "Leave us alone, lady!" sweep in, check for lingerers and then stand guard by the door and shoo all the other men away.
That's not too much to ask for a trip to the bathroom, is it?
The problem is that while we desperately are trying to make a very unlikely event very unlikely, we are doing something that actually is harmful. We're teaching our children that they are in constant danger from men.
In a Pedophile Panic, all men are perverts until proven otherwise. Sending our boys into the men's room feels like sending them into a meeting "that's all Cub Scout leaders and no Cub Scouts," says anthropologist Paul Draper.
The men's bathroom represents nothing less than manhood itself, a mysterious realm off-limits to women. Entering it is a rite of passage for young men.
It is time we let them go.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now" and "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry." Contact her at email@example.com.