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Teaching kids not to help an old lady in need

Lenore Skenazy

Lenore Skenazy

Here’s a bit of advice real “safety experts” are giving kids — and parents. It’s poisonous. But first, the back story:

The other day, a blogger named Lisa Flam wrote on a popular parenting website that her seventh grader came home one day and announced he “didn’t do it.” Didn’t do what? He and his friend were walking home from school (points for that!), when a whitehaired lady stood in her doorway and requested the boys’ help. “She asked them to move a mediumsize package from her front step into her house,” Flam wrote. “On the sidewalk, the boys wondered what to do.”

At first, they did absolutely nothing, knowing that they “shouldn’t.” After all, they didn’t know this woman, making her a stranger, making this fall into the dreaded category of “stranger danger.” But then, after the woman said she’s 84 years old and couldn’t move it herself, the other boy did the dirty deed:

He helped an old lady.

The blogger’s son did not. So — torn between gratitude that her son understands that the world is full of danger and doubts as to whether his refusal to help actually constituted good judgment — the mom called (who else?) the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Those are the folks who put the missing kids’ pictures on the milk cartons and neglected to mention that the vast majority were not taken by a stranger.

Nancy McBride, the safety director there, told the blogger her son was absolutely right to not jump in. Wrote Flam: “Even though the woman appeared harmless, (McBride) said, children need to be taught to follow the rules consistently, because looks can be deceiving. ‘Adults should not be asking kids for help,’ she said, adding that women have been used to entice children and that one of the top ‘tricks’ used to lure children is to ask them any question at all. ‘I don’t want the little boy to feel bad who helped her, but he made a judgment call that turned out O.K. this time, but it might not be O.K. next time. You don’t know who’s in the house with her.’”

Jeez Louise! It “turned out O.K.” — as if it was just sheer luck that the woman wasn’t shilling for a psychopath?!

Flam continued quoting her new mentor: “If the woman had fallen or had another immediate need, the boys, armed with their cellphones, could have called 911, Ms. McBride said. In the absence of an emergency, she said, they should have shifted the burden to a parent or school official.”

So seventh- grade boys — young men, in tandem — are being instructed to “shift the burden.” Always ask an official! Do not — repeat, do not — attempt to do anything on your own. Burn that Boy Scout oath!

The mom ends her story by worrying some more whether her son did the right thing. Then she invokes the Cleveland kidnappings and finally concludes that maybe someday, her son will be old enough to help.

And it’s not even that I blame this mom for her fears. I blame a whole society and its “experts,” bent on convincing us that our kids are in constant danger and that the only way to keep them safe is to imagine the worst-case scenarios (for example, a pimp’s hiring an 84-year-old accomplice) and proceed as if those were likely to happen today to our kids.

They’re not.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “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.”

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