Home » Eve Pearlman

Eve Pearlman: School yard risk and reality

Submitted by on 1, November 13, 2009 – 6:00 am3 Comments

One day last week, a man described as 50ish, white, and wearing an Edison Elementary School sweatshirt was confronted by a teacher as he was recording or filming a group of children playing on the Edison school yard during the day’s final recess. When questioned by two teachers, he swore at them and complained about being interrupted. When he was asked to leave, he did so.

So creepy! On an elementary school playground! A stranger recording the activities of our children and being belligerent. Yuck. And what makes it even creepier is that the man had the foresight/premeditation to don a school sweatshirt. Yet he was unbalanced enough to curse at a teacher and to become enraged when asked to identify himself.

Incidents like this strike fear in parents’ hearts. What ifs and could haves and OMGs fill our minds, e-mails and sidewalk conversations. And you can feel it in the neighborhood, the rise of anxiety, the rush of worry.

It can not be said often enough, reiterated enough, that the greatest risks to children – abduction, molestation, abuse – come not from strangers (though those rare narratives loom incredibly large in our collective imaginations) but rather from people whom children know and trust: family members and neighbors, religious leaders, coaches, troop leaders, parents and step-parents and siblings.

The threat from a stranger on the schoolyard is exceedingly rare and in context quite manageable. Edison, and we would hope all Alameda schools, can and will demand compliance with the policy that requires all visitors to sign in at the office and put on a visitor’s tag; moreover, lunch time and recess monitors can take an ever-more-vigilant approach to making sure all people on or near the school yard are school employees and volunteers. Students can be reminded about the importance of reporting anyone they don’t recognize.

Protecting our children from strangers at school is relatively straightforward. But the work of keeping our children safe from more likely danger is more difficult because it means turning our attention to those who already are in close contact with our children. It means helping our children to understand their rights and boundaries with people in positions of authority – people they might already know and trust. And this is a whole lot trickier than guarding against those they don’t.

The work of fortifying children from the inside, the day-in-and-day-out job of loving and caring for children, of teaching them to recognize and respect their own personal space, to trust their judgment, is an ongoing one. It is slow, patient, work. There is no simple or easy solution to keeping our children safe-there is being there, listening to our children, attending to our children, observing our children, loving our children – that is the best protection we can give.

But it is hard to keep a lid on fear. We live in a culture that is fed by fear: swine flu, bird flu, AIDS, plane crash, terrorist attack, abduction – but keep a lid on it we must. Because it is the calm attention to reality that will best protect our children. It is an engagement with what is actually there and an understanding of real risk that will serve them best.

Creepy-stranger incidents are rare beyond rare, yet they dominate our psyches. They cripple our freedom and rob our attention.


  • Michael Krueger says:

    I was just thinking about this topic on my walk to work this morning, which was a little earlier than usual. I was happy to see a number of children walking to school, but what surprised me was how many of them—even kids around 11 or 12 years old—who were accompanied by a parent. I used to walk to school by myself, even in kindergarten; I couldn't have imagined having Mom walk me to school when I was 12. Walking to school by myself was an adventure, and I also learned about responsibility when I got in trouble for being late because I had stopped along the way to pet a cat or break some ice on a puddle. I don't know how much extra danger that unaccompanied walking added to my life, but it is sad to contemplate what's lost in the quest for ever greater safety and security for children.

  • Eve says:

    Hi, Michael. It is amazing to contemplate how much has changed, even in a generation. I also walked to school even in kindergarten. One of the thing that did make it easier is that all the kids walked, and so we were there together.

    I interviewed a professor who has studied fear in our culture for another piece I wrote on this topic and one of the things he stressed is how we've gotten ourselves into a position where no amount of risk is acceptable. Some of the things he noted are here: http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_9602723

  • Frances says:

    Hi Eve,

    I really appreciate your article (and the accompanying links). Like most grown-ups these days I too had a lot more freedom than I give my kids. I rode my bike all over my neighborhood in Berkeley (near King Middle School) in 5th and 6th grades, and my younger sister and I came home from school and were on our own until our parents got home at 5:30. Now it seems like the most fearful parenting is the "best" parenting, and those of us who experiment with letting our kids be home alone for a short period or go out on their own are almost afraid to admit it for fear of being judged or even reported! BTW, I really recommend Kidpower (www.kidpower.org) for very helpful tools (information, workshops, etc.) on teaching our kids "People Safety" rather than "stranger danger."

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