So I’m going down a narrow stairway at my local YMCA, and there’s a lively middle-school-aged kid crowding me from behind, and when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I turn around and see that he’s a cute guy who smiles at me. I smile back.

“Hey, guy,” I say. “How’s it going?”

As I say this, he’s opened the door to the racquetball court where his family waits, and his father or uncle hears what I say and gives me a hard stare. Vigilance, I think; stranger danger. Can’t be too careful. Then I see the father or uncle talking to another father-or-uncle, and then they are both giving me a hard stare, interrupting their game to do, what? Warn me off? Intimidate me? Keep me from subduing the kid and stuffing him in the trunk of my car and driving him to some secluded spot and having my wicked will of him?

Whenever in the course of my workout I look toward the racquetball court, these guys are staring at me. Well, I think, he is a really cute kid, and maybe he’s been the object of inappropriate attention in the past, and this hypervigilance is understandable, so ignore it.

Then I go back up the stairs to the track for a few dozen laps, and as I come around the bend I see that the guardians of vulnerable youth have come upstairs and are sitting by the treadmills, giving me the hard stare. By this time, it’s been nearly an hour since I talked to the kid, and this behavior is starting to be intimidating, even harassing. I think about going to the front desk and registering a complaint, but what would I complain about? That these guys are staring at me?

Staring may not be a crime, I tell myself, but intimidation is; if they block my way around the track, or confront me in the locker room, or are waiting for me in the parking lot, I will call 911. And I may have ruined their evening workout, but I won’t let them ruin mine. I ignore them, and when I finish my third mile they are no longer by the treadmills, or on the stairway, or in the locker room. After an hour of threatening looks and unceasing vigilance, they’re gone, their point made, their kid safe.

As a veteran foster parent and mentor, I know that these guys are statistically a greater threat to their son/nephew than I or any stranger. According to the Center for Family Justice, more than 90 percent of children who are sexually abused know their attacker. Their victimizers are family members, trusted family friends, neighbors, coaches, teachers. Not strangers. And physical and emotional abuse and neglect are committed almost exclusively by immediate or extended family members or trusted caregivers.

The abduction of children by strangers, seen in the popular mind as a serious and ever-present threat to America’s children, almost never happens. According to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Center at the University of New Hampshire, “children taken by strangers or slight acquaintances represent only one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children. The last comprehensive study estimated that the number was 115 in a year.”

So the chance that I was going to abduct this kid and stuff him into the trunk of my car was essentially zero. Much more likely was the chance, should he go missing, that one of his guardians had made away with him, or that he’d gotten lost, or that he’d just not called in. Once again, Finkelhor: “Far more common [than children abducted by strangers] are children who have run away, have gotten lost or injured, have been taken by a family member (usually in a custody dispute) or simply aren’t where they’re expected to be because of a miscommunication.”

I’d dismiss this incident at the Y as a random bit of goofiness if similar incidents were not so common. I often say hello, how’s it going, to children whom I meet in public (and I always greet dogs, though their owners don’t seem to mind). And, though I’m not an especially sinister-looking person, I am often regarded with suspicion by their caretakers, even when I’m accompanied by children.

My neighbors across the alley put up a high plank fence around their backyard to protect their two boys from the predators who were thought to be constantly cruising the alleys, looking for children to abduct. Several male acquaintances have told me that they’d be leery of approaching a child they don’t know in public, even a crying, lost child; they’d rather let the child be distressed, or be helped by a woman, than try to help and find themselves being questioned by the police.

The damage to the social fabric caused by this irrational fear of strangers is considerable: Friendly strangers are an important part of the proverbial village necessary to raise a child, often the only go-to person available when a child is hurt or lost — and a child who is taught to be afraid of everybody he doesn’t know has a good chance of growing up to be a fearful and suspicious grown-up. Unlike the other irrational and probably transitory fears that beset us — of home invasion or immigrants taking our jobs or the feds coming to take our guns — this fear of strangers, passed on from one generation to another, seems to have staying power.

Our world, our country, are safer for children, for all of us, than they have ever been in my lifetime. So how do we account for this irrational fear of strangers? Back in the “safe” 1950s, when child-mortality rates were twice as high as they are now, I’d leave the house when my chores were done and be gone all day, playing sandlot baseball or cowboys-and-Indians or just hanging out at the park, getting back home by dinnertime, losing privileges if I were late.

No calls to the police, no Amber Alerts. There were as many stranger abductions back then as there are now, proportionately, but unless the victims were children of celebrities or of rich parents — the Lindbergh baby or Bobby Greenlease — we didn’t hear about them.

Then came the abductions of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh and Jacob Wetterling, children of middle-class families whose cases received national attention, and suddenly “a parent’s worst nightmare” became a possibility for ordinary people.

What made our growing fears worse in the 1980s was an alarming statistic being circulated by, among others, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 50,000 stranger abductions in this country every year, 5,000 of which, according to one source, result in the death of the child.

When I first encountered this statistic, I was shocked and fearful, having two young children of my own. Then I did the math. It would take nearly 1,000 stranger abductions a week to total 50,000 a year. Minnesota’s share would be, what — 20, 30? Stranger abductions of children? A week? Come on. If this were the case, we’d all know several families whose children had been snatched by strangers, might well have had one of our own children snatched, but neither I nor anyone I knew was the victim of, or was even aware of, a single abduction. Unless the news media were keeping a really sensational story under wraps, the actual figure was a half-dozen such abductions in Minnesota per decade, at most.

But what about the pictures of children on milk cartons, those hundreds of victims of what we were led to believe were stranger abductions? A little digging uncovered the truth: All but a very few of these children were either runaways or the victims of family abductions, often by noncustodial parents. According to the FBI, these “very few” amounted to 200 or 300 stranger abductions in a given year, most of which, thanks to cellphones and the internet, now end with the safe return of the child.

During this same given year, more than 2,000 children will die in automobile accidents, all of which are preventable. The most dangerous place for a child to be, it turns out, is not the back of a stranger’s van but a seat in his parents’ car.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children has stopped using the 50,000-a-year statistic and has even asked parents to stop warning their children against “stranger danger.” Yet the myth persists. Parents hover over their children at school bus stops, hurry them away from innocent encounters in public places, intimidate friendly strangers at the Y.

As for me, I intend to go on greeting the children of strangers, at the Y and anywhere else, talking with them if they want to talk, helping them if they need help. I’ve learned that one of the best favors we can do our own children and the children of strangers is to connect them in every way that we can with the wide world in which they must someday find their place.

This world may have its dangers, but a friendly stranger is almost never one of them.

 

Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.