I’m driving down a busy street when Natalie starts screaming. At this point I’ve discovered my daughter’s wailing doesn’t always constitute an emergency so I keep going. But when her cries hit migraine inducing decibel levels I start to worry. Is she strapped in too tight? Something in her eye? Pulling her own hair again? Better check it out.

Since pulling over on a commercial thoroughfare is a recipe for disaster, I hook a right onto a residential street and park in front of a house. A boy about seven years old is standing in front of the driveway while his father washes his car. When I get out of my car the father runs over, picks his son up, and whisks him into the garage. Jesus.

Undeterred, I open the rear passenger door and my daughter breaks into a smile. Little faker. She was just jonesing for Pops. I knew I should have bought her that jumper that read, “When I cry I get stuff.” But I check her straps anyway, scan the backseat for hazards and then pat her little head. “We’ll be home soon, honey,” I say.

As I climb back behind the wheel the father in the driveway is watching me like a hawk. So much for the universal brotherhood of daddydom. To be fair, from his vantage point he can’t see I have a baby in the car, but his protective impulse strikes me as paranoid. The odds of a stranger snatching your child in broad daylight are astronomically low. Do I look like a kidnapper? White slaver? A strung out junkie trying to find kiddie kidneys for the Chinese organ market? To make sure I look in the rear view mirror. A pudgy but well groomed middle-aged daddy stares back at me.

“Paranoid asshole,” I mutter under my breath. Then I smile, wave cheerily at the man and drive away.

If I’m honest, part of me is hurt that someone thinks I might hurt a child. A few weeks ago I was walking Felix in my neighborhood when I came across two little girls about four and seven years old sitting on their front steps. The older girl asked, “Can I pet your doggie?” Since Felix is super friendly I said sure. I’ve let lots of kids pet him. But before the girl took two steps a female voice from within the house screamed, “Get back in here!”

“My mommy won’t let me pet your dog,” the girl said,

“You have to listen to your mother,” I said. “Go back inside.” As I walked away I heard the screen door open and the mother say, “What were you thinking? That man could have taken your sister!” I’ve lived in this neighborhood for eleven years. I’m not an unknown quantity. And this lady thought I was a kidnapper too? Wow.

I actually feel sorry for those children. While I’m all for protecting kids, I think the above mentioned parents are teaching their tykes the world is always a dangerous place. That’ll hurt them in the long run. The more reflective part of me wonders if the adults had bad experiences which powered their behavior, but I just figure they’re paranoid.

I know a mother who constantly pours over sex offender registries, saw the police shoo an old man enjoying his lunch by the playground off the premises and overheard a father explain the modus operandi of serial killers to his grade-schooler. I’m not denying evil exists or advocating a pollyanna view of reality, but I think a lot of this “stranger danger” insanity is more about people’s inability to handle their anxiety over the world’s perils than it has to do with childrens’ welfare.

Am I being too harsh? Just today a kid stabbed a bunch of his high-school classmates and we all remember the unspeakable atrocity of Newtown. But I’ve been working in mental health on and off since 1990 and I can safely say the person most likely to abuse, injure, molest or kill a child are their own parents or a close family member. I’ve seen it happen in households rich and poor, educated and uneducated. But let’s face it, that doesn’t sell papers. It’s the boogeyman in the bushes that drives ratings in our 24/7 news world. And despite all the terrible things that have happened, your child’s school is safer than it was when we were children.

When my Dad was little he was taught to “duck and cover” in case the Russians dropped the big one. Now we have kindergartners doing active shooter drills. Most of the horrors we see on the news are the result of people with untreated or under-treated mental illness. If you’re worried about wackos doing in your kids, or you for that matter, petition your congressman to raise taxes and fund mental health programs. The psych unit where I work part-time is overwhelmed because the state’s been closing psychiatric hospitals when they should be building them. Nah, that costs money. That’s “Big Government.” We’d just rather talk about how unsafe we all feel while funding for programs to keep parents from hurting their kids is siphoned away to bail out car companies that sell cars that kill people and subsidize coal companies that contaminate our drinking water. Instead of expelling a schoolkid for making a gun out of his thumb and forefinger, send those clowns to prison.

Trust me. I’m not blasé about my child’s safety. I will teach her what to look out for at an appropriate pace appropriate for her age. I’ve seen a lot of dangerous people over the years. Just yesterday I had a patient describe how he’d cut my throat. I’m not ignorant of danger but I will not raise Natalie in a world where she’s worried everyone’s a possible predator. I didn’t grow up like that. Neither will she. And remember this, when people are screaming how unsafe you are, the odds are good they’re profiting off your fear.

Getting on the highway, I suddenly remember I have to pick up frozen kale (Yuk) at Trader Joes. Luckily for me, I snag at spot in the store’s crowded parking lot. Leaving Natalie in the car, I open the trunk, take out the carriage and unfold it. Then, just as I’m about to unlatch the car seat, a woman in a mini van misses the carriage by an inch as she races into a newly opened spot by the front door. Of course, she’s on her cell phone.

Those are the strangers you have to look out for.

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