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Have you seen Dateline NBC’s show My Kid Would Never Do That? The premise of the show is to put kids in situations like “stranger danger” or driving and texting to see if they make the right choices. Dateline NBC uses actors and sets up scenarios through hidden cameras to show parents how their kids performed. For the stranger danger scenario, an actor impersonated an ice cream truck driver and offered a tour of his truck. Parents were certain their kids wouldn’t take the bait, but sure enough most of them did—even Natalie Morales’ own 8-year-old son.
Producers of the show encourage parents to watch the episodes with their kids and talk about how to make the right choices. Seems like a cautionary tale for us all, right? Or is it making parents even more paranoid about what could happen to their kids?
Personally, I’m opting not to watch the series or discuss it with my kids. Yes, I’ve had the stranger danger talk with them—we even have books about it. But the way that the show sets up the situation with the ice cream truck, well, let’s just say that I’d probably climb back there too. It was pretty tempting, and let’s be honest: I’m not sure that’s a real-world example of stranger danger.
We all make mistakes. I don’t like the idea of using hidden cameras to catch kids (or adults for that matter) to test how they’re doing. If someone used a hidden camera on me, I’m sure there’d be quite a few parenting infractions on my part – everything from yelling at my kids to get dressed in the mornings to telling them to wear their underwear two days in a row.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s absolutely important to talk to kids about strangers being dangerous, texting while driving, and bullying. These are serious issues and should be discussed in an open manner. However, I feel that the show is set up to show kids that we don’t trust them, which is why we need to record them without their consent while they’re making mistakes. That way, we can watch the tapes with them and offer corrections to their “wrong” behavior. But what about kids learning to correct themselves? Haven’t we all made bad choices and learned from them?
I also think the show feeds into parents’ paranoia of “but something could happen.” Recently, a friend of mine told me that she didn’t let her 8-year-old daughter play outside with the other kids in her suburban neighborhood. When I asked why, she replied, “It’s just so dangerous these days. You just never know what can happen.” She said she’d rather just let her daughter play inside at home.
I know there are plenty of situations where kids shouldn’t be playing outside on their own. For instance: kids under the age of five, children with developmental or health issues who need adult supervision, or kids who live in urban areas that don’t provide easy access to kid-friendly parks or playgrounds.
This wasn’t the case. My friend’s daughter was emotionally and developmentally ready. Her neighborhood was the perfect environment for kids to play – and there were plenty of kids who already played outside. She just didn’t want to take the risk in letting her daughter play outside on her own.
Is that what parenting has become? Fear of letting our kids have their own experiences because we’re afraid of what will happen?
I was given a lot of freedom as a child. I didn’t have siblings my age, so I often went around the neighborhood knocking on doors and asking parents if their kids could come out and play. I rode my bike without adult supervision up to a half mile away from my house. I went to the park on my own and stayed there for hours. I walked to and from the school bus stop on my own. By the time I was in junior high, I was riding public transportation on my own. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. And yes, I did come across some potentially dangerous situations like strangers trying to talk to me or offering me rides. I learned to trust my instincts and how to handle those situations.
Now that I’m a parent, I’m terrified of my kids being in the situations created by My Kid Would Never Do That. I don’t want anything to happen to them. At the same time, I feel like my job as a parent is to prepare them for these situations and teach them how to think for themselves so they’ll be able to make the right choices. Not secretly tape them with hidden cameras and then point out everything they did wrong or scare them (or me) from watching worst-case scenarios on TV.
Tracey Black is the author of Don’t Mess with Mama, a blog about parenting, work-life balance, healthy eating, and life as a far from perfect mom. She has three boys under the age of eight, and lives in San Diego, California.