Marguerite Kelly published this letter in her advice column in the Washington Post on June 27:
Q. I am worried sick about my preteen daughter.
When she didn’t log out of her Gmail account, I found love letters between her and a “friend” she met in an online game for kids. Apparently she’s been playing this game with him for over a year but they’ve only been “dating” online for three weeks. However, she says that they are “keeping their love a secret” because her other online friends don’t like this boy.
The letters didn’t contain any sexual references — mostly they were just angst-driven teen poetry — but I can’t help wondering if he really is a 13-year-old boy or if he is a pedophile who is “grooming” my daughter. Part of me is optimistic because they played this kids’ game for over a year before they started chatting off-line and because he plays soccer regularly — maybe for a youth league. But there’s no way to know for sure, right?
So what do I do about my daughter’s e-mail and her online “love relationship”? My initial instinct was to flip out and ban all online games and e-mails, but I’m hoping you know some social media and online rules that I can set up for my daughter instead.
To begin with, the letter writer did not explain what she meant by “love letters” except to say there were no references to sexuality and contained poetry of a type peculiar to young teens. But, the mom immediately added the possibility of a pedophile being the on-line friend, someone who might be ‘grooming’ her daughter. The first
time I heard the term ‘grooming’ in association with pedophilia was in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, where Penn State officials let him continue his association with the university while he went on buggering young boys he met through the charity he founded, so I am going to assume the mom learned the word there, too. Her jump to assuming her daughter’s online ‘boyfriend’ could easily be a pedophile would have been facilitated from all the news about Sandusky and the Roman Catholic Church scandal through what’s known as the availability heuristic in psychology. Essentially, this is one of the rules of thumb that humans use to make decisions when there is not a lot of information available about the situation, and it can be restated like this: the easier it is for you to recall an instance of something happening (say, a pedophile case), then the more frequently you will believe it happens in general. This mom, like all of us, have been deluged with pedophile stories for months now, so there is no surprise that she might think her daughter was writing to one.
The difference in their ages might be much greater than it seems, however, and you must find out exactly what it is.
To do this, tell your daughter that her account was open, that you read her mail and that you were surprised to see that she was swapping love letters with a boy she met online. Don’t be judgmental. It’s much better to say, “Tell me about him. What’s he like?” and then be quiet. Children fill silences the way rainwater fills a hole in the ground.
Bit by bit, she will tell you about his school, his family and his soccer team, but ask her about other aspects of his life, too. She won’t mind as long as you don’t cast doubt on his character, his charm or his intentions. If you do, she might question any advice you give her, now and for years to come.
Once you’ve learned all you can, tell your daughter that you’d like to invite this boy and his parents over for brunch on Sunday. This will let you take his measure — and evaluate your daughter’s judgment as well — but afterward you should tell her that he’s nice enough but that she can’t date him — or anyone — for a few more years. She’ll be upset, but stand fast and be sympathetic so she’ll know that you understand how much your decision has hurt her.
However, if this boy calls at the last minute and says that the family can’t come to the brunch because the car broke down, the dog got sick or Aunt Matilda just blew into town, then ask him to come next week and if he cancels again, ask him to come the week after that even though he’ll probably renege again. That’s when you’ll know that it’s time to tell the police that a child predator might be contacting your daughter, because you have to protect other young girls as well as your own. And if your own police force doesn’t have cybercrime officer? Find out who handles these crimes in the county, the state or even the FBI, because all electronic devices have their own IP addresses and these agencies can track down every one of them.
It appears the advice columnist suffered a Nancy-Grace moment, when the world is clearly the most evil place it could be and where everyone who ‘sins’ should be summarily executed. So Ms. Kelly agrees the online friend could be a pedophile and decides that mom should question her 11 year-old cleverly, never arousing suspicion, until she gets a picture of the obvious miscreant. But that’s not enough, of course. She directs mom to have the boy and his family to brunch, where mom can “take his measure”, but of course mom should predetermine that daughter can’t ‘date’ him or anyone for an unknown number of years.
I would point out that American parents have reached absolute craziness when it comes to protecting their exceptional children. The famous Groucho Marx was sent out on the vaudeville circuit by his mother, Minnie, when he was 9 years old, and he got stranded in the midwest for quite some time when someone stole his money. But no one thought that Minnie should be arrested for child abuse. Given that child abuse and pedophilia are not modern inventions, it would appear that they weren’t assumed to be the norm when Groucho went on the road.
W.C. Fields, another famous vaudeville and Hollywood comedian, left home at 11 quite amicably, with his parents’ blessing, to go on the road with a juggling act.
So where is this fear coming from? Blame cable news, which repeats the same stories over and over, preferably those where horrible things happen to people. And leaders who keep telling the populace to “be afraid. Be very afraid.”
And of course, hysterics like Ms. Kelly, who in a final bit of advice to this impressionable mom directed her to do the following in the future:
From now on your daughter should:
• use a smartphone, gaming device or computer only in the kitchen or the family room;
• give her electronic equipment to you before you go to bed;
• create a new username that no one can guess;
• and tell you what it is, even though you’ll only open her account if she’s standing at your side or it’s an emergency.
I’m wondering if any of you remember your childhoods very well, or maybe some of you are not that many years away from your teenage years. If you’re honest with yourself, you know that was a time of exploring and experimenting, and a time of a desperate search for privacy. You snatched that privacy any way you could. If you’re 11 years old and living with mom and dad, that’s pretty hard to do. The internet is the modern temple of privacy. In my youth, we had precious hours free to play, to ride bikes, and to be alone with ourselves or with friends. That’s how we grew up, and it didn’t damage us. But cruel and punitive measures, like Ms. Kelly’s rules, which arise from unjustified fears, are sure to effect the psyche of a developing child. I wonder how that girl is going to rebel in her later years, because her mom has real control issues.