Yesterday was one of those mellow early-fall afternoons that demand to be embraced and savored. A perfect day to let the kids run around the park playground across the street from school and, for once, not worry about rushing them back into the drab world of homework, laundry-folding and chicken in the oven. My two wasted no time in finding friends and launching into adventures while I found a bench to bask on.
"Mommy! Mommy!" Breaking into my reverie, my daughter came running, almost tripping over the grass in her excitement. "A man just took a videotape of Sam and me!" She grinned and clasped her hands together. "He says we're going to be on TV!"
A stranger videotaped my daughter? So much for a placid afternoon.
I wouldn't call myself an obsessively cautious parent. I side with the Free-Range Kids philosophy that children need a measure of independence to help them become confident, self-reliant people. I don't see the world as a cesspool of evil where villains lurk around every corner, just waiting for a mother to drop her guard for a nanosecond. Statistics show that crime is lower now than it was decades ago, when it was much more common for kids to wander their neighborhoods unsupervised. And though I live in big bad New York City, the little segment of it where we hang our hats is about as peaceful and suburbanesque as they come.
Yes, of course the bad guys are out there, and tragically, unspeakable things can and do happen to children. But what we tend to forget is that the terrifying news stories are just that - news, brought to our attention because these things don't happen every day. We also forget that children are more likely to be kidnapped or hurt by someone they know than by a random stranger. The world grieved when little Leiby Kletzky was abducted and murdered by a mentally ill man just blocks from where his parents were waiting for him to return from his Brooklyn camp. No one batted an eye when two more New York children were killed mere weeks later - one a young teen beaten to death on her own front porch by her stepfather, the other a baby shaken while under her parents' care.
So I try to maintain that tricky balance between realism and paranoia. I give my kids freedom to explore familiar territory like our block or the playground, and I don't dial 911 if they leave my sight for a minute or two. We've gone over the basic safety rules: never go anywhere, accept food or get into a car with someone they don't know. My son even scolds me if I strike up a conversation with a shopper: "Mom, you're talking to a stranger!"
And yet, when my daughter told me about the man with the camera, reason gave way to panic. A stranger videotaped my child!! And he did it while I sat just a stone's throw away, with my back turned. What was this person doing getting footage of 5-year-old girls? Had he touched them? Made them pose? Was he sending his footage to YouTube or to some beyond-sickening pedophile site?
Instantly, I turned into Lioness Mom. This creep wasn't going to get away with this on my watch.
My daughter's excited face fell as she saw that I wasn't as thrilled about this video incident as I was. "What did he look like? Where did he go?" I demanded.
She pointed to the bike path a few yards away. Grabbing her hand, I ran in that direction - leaving my son under the watchful eye of parent-friends - and soon spotted a figure walking slowly round a bend. "There he is!" she yelled.
In full frenzy mode, I sped to his side. The guy was 70 years old if he was a day, white-haired and calm, but yes, holding a video camera. Crime knows no age, I guess. "Excuse me!" I said. No response. "EXCUSE ME, SIR!"
Finally, he turned in my direction and smiled. What?! How dare he be pleasant at a time like this?
"Did you just take a video of my daughter?" I demanded.
He smiled again. His accent sounded Slavic. "No English. Sorry."
I pointed to his camera and then to my girl, who by now was clinging to my leg and probably wondering why Mom was so upset with this nice old man. "DID...YOU...TAPE...HER?" I asked in the time-honored Let's Talk Loudly and Slowly to Foreigners fashion.
"No...no!" He pointed to a younger and an older woman a short distance away. "Here...daughter."
Women confronted. Situation explained. The older one - his wife, no doubt - didn't speak English either, but the daughter understood enough to assuage my fears. She let me look at the saved videos her father had taken, as well as the photos on the camera she was carrying. Nothing remotely suspicious, and no images of my child or anyone else's. Just a happy family posing in front of flowers and walls and otherwise enjoying a visit to the park - until a strange crazed woman started accusing them of exploiting her kid, that is. My guess is that Dad must have passed by the girls, they pointed to his camera and he said "TV" because, well, that's the one word everyone knows.
I'm sure many parents hearing about this will nod their heads and say I did exactly the right thing. "Better safe than sorry," they'll say. "You just never know." True. But while I would have blamed myself if I'd done nothing and something unsavory had happened, I do feel a bit embarrassed for freaking out quite as much as I did. A cooler head and a calmer talk with my daughter might have brought out the whole story and avoided the drama that put a damper on a glorious fall day.
But what's done is done, and now I'll do what I should have done in the first place. I won't tighten the parental reins at the playground, but I will add a new rule to the safety list: don't let a grownup photograph or video you without getting clearance from Mom or Dad first. Like bath time, personal images are a private thing and not for general sharing without parental knowledge and supervision. Our neighborhood is a safe place; the internet is another matter.
Besides, if the videographer is looking for subjects for a new reality show, I want to know about it. Now that Kate Plus 8 has been cancelled, there's an empty spot on the TV schedule...