Hyper-vigilance about abuse can hurt children – and everyone

I recently walked by a red-brick Vancouver elementary school at recess time. About 20 young children were meandering around the playground.

The youngsters were being supervised by seven adults. They were all wearing day-glo orange vests and identification tags.

How sad. And not only for the children.

When one boy, about 10, bent over to a friend who was crouched on the grass, one of the female supervisors became worried. Rather than letting it go, she rushed to the rescue.

Such is the culture of hyper-protectiveness today.

How much is it contributing to increasingly anxious, less-resilient kids?

The scene at the school is just one example to me of how far adults will go to keep children absolutely “safe” from strangers.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising so many parents are on high alert.

There have been random shootings at some schools. And the news media is jammed with stories about pedophiles (including priests). Many movie plots revolve around child abuse. And reality-TV is capit

I recently walked by an elementary school and saw seven adults supervising 20 kids. What's wrong with this scene?

I recently walked by an elementary school and saw seven adults supervising 20 children.

alizing on the dread with series such as To Catch a Predator.

Given the fears, this week The Vancouver Sun ran an opinion piece by Alexander Fernandes, the head of a surveillance company, urging educators to, among other things, lock down schools and install high-tech cameras in every educational institution across the country.

It should be said that some of the heightened attention about child abuse has been helpful, to a point: People in the West have lost their naivete and become keenly aware of just how devastating abuse can be to tender lives.

But our super-vigilance comes at a cost.

Before describing what else I saw that day on the school playground, I will name some of the downsides of the exaggerated fear of strangers, abduction and sexual abuse.

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Since there is virtually no public debate about this sensitive issue, it has taken some acclaimed films to finally spark discussion about what scholars call a “moral panic.”

That’s the phrase used to describe the irrational fears societies builds up about certain “outsiders” — whether they have been perceived as witches, Communists, Japanese-Canadians, Muslims or pedophiles.

The new film The Hunt (which began showing this month in Canada) is winning awards for being bravely ground-breaking.

Mass hysteria ensues among teachers and parents when a confused girls falsely accuses her male teacher of molestation.

In The Hunt mass hysteria ensues among teachers and parents when a confused girl falsely accuses her male teacher of molestation.

Starring Mads Mikkelsen, the harrowing Danish film reveals the untold damage caused to a man, his children and a small community by the mass hysteria that ensues when a confused five-year-old girl falsely accuses her kindergarten teacher of molestation.

Another drama that delves into the subject of child-abuse panic is Monsieur Lazhar, a foreign-film finalist for last year’s Academy Awards, directed by Quebec’s Philippe Falardeau.

Monsieur Lazhar brilliantly shows how the lives of teachers, children and parents are confined, and in some cases destroyed, by paranoia about so-called “inappropriate” hugging.

As one elementary school teacher says in the film: “We handle kids like radioactive waste. Touch them and you get burned.”

What are the costs of this fixation on a risk-free world for children?

The most obvious are based on psychological studies, which show that parents’ fears, especially of predators, is leading to more anxious children (often medicated) who are less resilient.

But there is additional fall-out from the heightened fear of pedophiles, a problem that is much less well-known. It might sound odd to some, but it is causing psychologists grave concern.

It is an increasingly prevalent form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is the world’s fourth most common mental disorder. OCD causes peoples’ lives to be overtaken by obsessions and compulsions.

And psychologists are noting an unusual increase in the number of patients debilitated by what is being called Pedophilia Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (POCD).

Such anxious, struggling people, often highly religious, are not pedophiles. They have never molested any young person. But because of their moral conscientiousness, they become terrified that they may develop a fleeting attraction to a teenager. POCD can lead to depression and even suicide.

“Of all the forms that OCD may take, I am convinced that worry about becoming a pedophile is the worst,” says American psychology professor Monnica Williams, who emphasizes that such ashamed patients are the least likely to harm a child.

The rise of POCD raises the question: What exactly is a pedophile?

A third new film explores this highly charged question. Co-sponsored by the Netherlands’ Royal Academy of Art, the documentary, Are All Men Pedophiles?, details how airlines are banning men from sitting next to children, bookstores won’t allow men in the children’s section, and daycares won’t hire males.

In the face of such strict anti-pedophile measures, the award-winning documentary by Jan-Willem Breure juxtaposes how the advertising industry increasingly sexualizes young girls.

Our culture is filled with mixed messages about sex and youth.

Some scholars, such as American psychiatrist Ryan Hall and influential Canadian psychologist Raymond Blanchard, have been working to help the public sort out their bewilderment.

The specialists stress molesters are relatively scarce, and most victims are related to the perpetrators. The experts also suggest men or women are not pedophiles if they have occasional thoughts about the attractiveness of young people. They also emphasize there is an important difference between having persistent desires for sex with a young person and acting on those desires.

Instead of going into the psychological details on pedophilia, however, it may be most productive to return to the insights of the movie Monsieur Lazhar.

Based on a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Monsieur Lazhar revolves around the suicide of a female elementary teacher who viewers eventually discover had been accused by a schoolboy of hugging him too closely.

In Monsieur Lazhar a  girl comments in an impromptu discussion: “Everyone thinks we’re traumatized … but it’s the adults who are really.” What are the consequences of parents' fears?

In Monsieur Lazhar a girl comments in an impromptu discussion: “Everyone thinks we’re traumatized … but it’s the adults who are really.” What are the consequences of parents’ intense fears?

Monsieur Lazhar must deal with the fallout of the tragedy. But Lazhar, a rare male teacher in what the film portrays as a feminized Quebec school system, has his efforts to support his students hamstrung by fears he is also getting too close to them, in particular a girl.

When parents, teachers and professional grief counselors are freaking out about the safety of the students, the girl comments in an impromptu discussion during Lazhar’s class: “Everyone thinks we’re traumatized … but it’s the adults who are really.”

Both The Hunt and Monsieur Lazhar point to yet another consequence of pedophile panic: How male teachers have become an endangered species in many Canadian schools.

It’s a problem officials in the Ontario Elementary Teachers Federation identify as a “crisis.”

A study led by Mike Parr, published in the McGill Journal of Education, found men are avoiding the teaching professions in large part because they fear that males who enjoy working with children are socially stigmatized.

Parr’s survey discovered almost one of every seven Canadian male teachers has been falsely accused of inappropriate touching. As a result of the dearth of male role models in Canadian high schools, many educators say boys are falling behind.

Which brings us back to the Vancouver elementary school playground.

What happened when the playground supervisor, a young woman, rushed over to rescue what she must have thought was a boy on the ground helping a struggling male friend?

To my delight, the two boys suddenly grabbed the young woman’s knees and playfully began trying to haul her onto the grass.

The young woman, to her great credit, went along with their game. She fell down, and for a few second the three wrestled together, laughing.

Meanwhile, the six other supervisors stared at the scene, their confused faces etched with worry.


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