Don’t Touch My Child! Lessons from Asia

The American psyche is still reeling 33 years after the disappearance of little Etan Patz on his neighborhood corner. Kids have never been more coddled and cooped up. Activities like biking to school, which were once commonplace, now risk getting parents reported to social services, publicly ostracized, thrown in jail and on occasion nearly punched out by well-meaning grannies.
Is Our Fear Founded?
Every successive generation of technology along with the widespread adoption of social media means we are now, more than ever, aware of potential dangers. Couple this with competing media outlets battling it out for viewers, and we have a very distorted view of the threats facing our children today.
If you look at the actual numbers, it turns out Aunty Jane was the actual threat, not the middle-aged man loitering by the corner shop with that strange twitch. The studies done indicate that the majority of abductions are perpetrated by family members in custodial disputes. Following that are other family members and friends; only a tiny amount are actually your stereotypical kidnapping. The last reported figure was 119 cases in 1999. True, this figure is dated. A decade earlier, the estimate was from 200 to 300.
When it comes to judging dangers, we score low on the rationality charts. The leading cause of death for children between the ages of two and 14 is traffic accidents. In cases where alcohol was involved, half of the drivers with kids were the ones doing the drinking. (And yes, those two glasses of Pinot Grigio count.) Your child is 18 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than to be abducted by a stranger, but how often do you panic when your kid climbs into a car? And this number doesn’t include all the kids who survive with life-altering injuries. The same parents who would love nothing more than to electronically tag their children, think nothing of hopping in a taxi with zero child restraints. And I am sorry folks, Ergo carriers don’t count.
Still, 119 seems like a lot. But then I remember there are over 72 million kids 17 and under. That means there is a 0.00017% chance of my child being abducted by a stranger. I am not saying we shouldn’t raise our children to be aware of their surroundings and potential dangers, but I think we need to put things into perspective.
Better Safe Than Sorry
To err on the side of caution, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?
Actually no, it isn’t.
In addition to denying them rich, meaningful relationships as well as a sense of independence and self-worth among other things, our hysteria and unfounded fears mean we are actually putting our children in harm’s way. Even though children have never been safer, child abduction and pedophilia fear mongering have reached such a state that we are endangering our children precisely because we are being too careful.
In one instance in the U.K., a builder in his van sees a toddler walking along a major road by herself. His first instinct? To stop and pick her up. This was tragically followed by a fear of being reported as an abductor so he drove on. That night, the lead news story was of a little girl who had wandered out of her nursery and accidentally drowned in a nearby pond. In another, a man videotapes his neighbor’s daughter as she is beaten by a gang of girls. Many believed he was right in order to avoid potential charges from the female thugs.
Everyone is under suspicion, but nobody more so than men. From taking pictures, to comforting a child, it seems that everything is deemed questionable.  Carl Honoré, the author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, describes it perfectly in his chapter on “Safety”:
Modern Dads receive a mixed message: be touchy-feely with your own kids but, when it comes to other people’s keep the touching and feeling to yourself. The other day I was in the playground when a toddler fell off the slide and started bawling. My first instinct was to console him, but I checked myself. What if someone thinks I’m a pervert? So I stood there, mouthing platitudes at a safe distance, until his mother came over.
Where Does This Leave Us?
The truth is, most sexual attacks, though by no means all, are perpetuated by men and so it is understandable that in a culture intent on bathing us in fear, they are bearing the bull’s eye of distrust. But given the numbers, are we not taking things a little too far?
I think so, and to our children’s detriment. In Britain, music teachers are advised not to touch their pupils’ fingers—even to reposition them correctly. Male gym teachers don’t want to change in the same locker rooms as the boys they teach for fear of false accusations. In many daycares, men are not only banned from changing diapers, they are asked to leave the room while the changing takes place. And the list goes on. What kind of message are we sending to our children?
What We Can Learn from Asia
I can’t speak for all Asian cultures but in Singapore and Thailand, people love kids. And I am talking everyone. Age and gender simply don’t factor in. At first, I admittedly found it a little disconcerting how so many people would reach out and touch my children—a little pat on the head, squeeze of the cheek, caress of the hand. This is simply unheard of in the States and I imagine many, if not most, Western countries. People would only half-heartedly laugh in New York should you suggest someone might sue a person who touched their child.
The other day I was sitting on the bus taking my little girl Claude for her one-year check up. As the bus sat at a stop, a man in his mid-forties tapped the window with a big grin trying to attract and keep my daughter’s attention. There was nothing odd or threatening about this. She was overjoyed: new face = new fun. Men and women interact with my children regularly. I don’t know them and likely never will. My girls love it and little by little, I do too.
If there is one thing I could take home with me from my experience in Asia, it would be the genuine love and appreciation of children by men and women alike. I’ve come to realize the lost opportunity in the West that these interactions in the East provide.  When I think of my own childhood, my world was richer for the men I knew. I am glad my girls are not growing up paralyzed by stranger danger, and in particular, a heightened fear of men. I want my girls—should they find themselves lost, hurt or confused—not to fear adults they don’t know. Because what a terrible way to grow up. No child should ever be left to toddle to her death because people were too frightened to stop and help.


  1. I remember mothers and babies boarding the little buses in Dakar, Senegal that serve as public transportation there. If there wasn’t a seat available, the mother would immediately hand the baby over to the first person (man or woman) with arms outstretched to receive him/her. She wouldn’t even have to ask, it was just understood that it would be handled this way. And the kid was happy as a clam to get handed off. That always made me smile.

  2. Thanks Sonia. It is nice to hear positive stories like this from other parts of the world. I am trying to create a mental map of where lie the cultures of fear. It will be interesting to see if it is something that spreads over time -I really hope not!

  3. When we were in Vietnam adopting our son, we had the same experience. Wait staff in restaurants–and I mean in every restaurant we visited– would hold him and entertain him while we ate. Would love to open a restaurant in the US that does that, but it would never be successful here.

  4. […] A brilliant article on how overprotective hysterical parents damage their children: “In addition to denying them rich, meaningful relationships as well as a sense of independence and self-worth among other things, our hysteria and unfounded fears mean we are actually putting our children in harm’s way. Even though children have never been safer, child abduction and pedophilia fear mongering have reached such a state that we are endangering our children precisely because we are being too careful.” […]

  5. I had similar experiences in Thailand. In Bali, there seemed to be a magnetic attraction between restaurant staff and children. You could tell they simply loved to entertain kids!

  6. I live in Spain and the attitude here is so different from the UK where I am from.

    I love the fact that everyone here loves children. I lived both here and in Italy as a child and in both cultures men and women will stop to appreciate someone’s child, to play with them, pinch their cheeks… I now have my own baby here in Spain and I love the fact that whereever I go, someone will be in raptures over how cute my baby is, even calling over someone else to look at her. In two weeks back home in the UK, only two people were remotely interested in my baby. The mediterranean attitude is very rewarding for a parent!

  7. Laura, I now live in Thailand and it is amazing how much everyone adores kids. I will even have them with me if I need to negotiate a complex situation as they kids help create an area of common ground between us.

    Anna Beth – you think? I know that I would have been your first and best customer. I also have a lot of friends still in the US who dream of a restaurant like that. I guess the challenge would be finding the right staff for it.

    Emma – I am glad you reminded me of an amazing experience I had in Barcelona when P was nearly 2. It was peak time and lots of people in work attire were trying to walk down what has to be one of the world’s narrowest sidewalks -maybe 2 feet across? She was toddling…in the middle, stop and starting. I would have normally just picked her up but I was pregnant and trying to discourage her asking to be carried. No one minded, everyone smiled and just made the effort to walk around her. It was such a contrast to the usual huffing and eye rolls I would get in Brooklyn, where the sidewalks were 3-4 times as wide. Sometimes I wonder if it is just a factor of people being very stressed in a workaholic culture where vacations are looked down upon vs people who are just generally more relaxed with a better quality of life. No doubt a combination of things in any event. Thanks for all the comments everyone!

  8. I live in Taiwan and people also like to touch, hold, and play with babies and young children. It’s really nice to feel welcome with your baby or toddler no matter where you go. You do have to watch people, though, more because they may give kids inappropriate items to play with or eat rather than worry about them intentionally harming your child. I also think it’s important we let children know they don’t HAVE to let people touch them, especially as they get older. We need to teach them to communicate their own wishes clearly and appropriately.

  9. Very interesting article. We live in Japan and my son is ‘hafu’ I am a Brit, his dad Japanese so he gets a lot of attention and when he was a baby we often had people trying pinch his cheeks or pat him on the head much of due to the novelty of a hafu baby.
    Now he has just started elementary school and the kids walk in groups to and from school, no matter the distance, we are lucky because we live in an area with lots of kids but i have friends who live in the mountains and their kids walk 3km each way. They all go together in the morning but coming home they are let out by grade so the 1st graders walk home alone (no big kids with them), I am still getting used to the fact my little 6 year old is walking home without an adult.

  10. Katrina – I totally agree with you on the choice and that is a tough one here at the moment in Bangkok. I also really struggled with inappropriate treats in Singapore. First it was the hard sucking candies they kept giving my 2 year old, then one time, in order to calm my daughter down, a woman handed her a whole pack of gummies ( A BIG PACK!). It was a struggle since I felt Pea was being rewarded for bad behavior. That said I definitely prefer struggling with this problem than the opposite side of the spectrum.

    Jojoebi- WOW! It is amazing to me to think of kids walking to school in nature as a group for such a long distance. I would struggle with it as I find myself often struggling with the effects of media has on my subconscious even if I can be rational when I discuss these things. At the same time, I am also envious of the parents who can give that incredible experience.

  11. It is true that the UK is paralysed with fear but then it is not a very child welcoming country to start with. When we first moved there when I was a kid my parents were shocked that in the UK kids would eat ‘nursery food’, often at a different time to their parents’ proper meal. Continental Europe is much better, a few years ago we drove to visit some family in the Netherlands and stopped in Arnhem. We went to eat at an Indonesian restaurant. The proprietor came out to talk to us and brought a high chair for our 6 month old. He sat down to feed and entertain our son so that we could enjoy our Rijsttafel. We are in Kazakhstan now and kids are very central to life here – it makes a lovely change.

  12. Isn’t this funny, I am the same Emma who commented before – I thought the article seemed familiar! I have only just read your comments Cordelia but wanted to add one more thing. My daughter, now almost 2 has been having swimming lessons for the last 10 months… with male teachers. They shove floats into her costume, give her hugs and kisses in praise. In the UK, you’d report that sort of behaviour. I think we’re really damaging our children’s relationships by over protectiveness and I am glad to have read your article again!

  13. I think you dont need to lookas far east as china, just continental europe and you dont get all the scaremongering. here kids walk to school or bike to school as ever. and they take public transport and no one is making a fuss out of it.

  14. Here in Brazil I think we’re kind of in a middle term over the whole exacerbating the stranger-danger thing, people are naturally wary of someone they deem suspect but in the whole if you’re in a bus that’s overcrowded babies, toddlers and even some older children clam up and talk with strangers, and frankly it’s kind of a non-deal if you by chance stumble in someone who will baby-talk to your child, and when a child can or cannot walk to school on his on her own it’s an agreement between its parents and no one else and overall children as young as seven or eight go to school on their own. On smaller cities or some bigger cities relatively safe neighbourhoods it is almost happenstance to be nearly run over by kids racing down on bikes. Yes, bad things will happen as they always did and at times that one warning that onoe measure of extra-protection may change everything, at times it may not, and to warn our children is fine is dandy but to sufocate them will just hinder everyone and that is what makes the progressing hysteria over every little parenting thing one huge mistake.

  15. Well, my 5 year old son was RAPED by a Japanese man who conned me into thinking that he was my friend. He took him into the staircase of a hotel when he went to the convenience store for 30 minutes after 4 months of being my “friend”. My son was ALWAYS very friendly to everybody he met before this happened. Now, he’s terrified and bites his hands all day long and shoves them straight into his mouth whenever we go out in public. I have to say my faith in people has been SHATTERED and that is not hysteria. Also, the Buddhist cultures of Asia have monks who regularly rape children when they are “studying” with them and their culture just accepts it. Absolutely evil; and disgusting and makes me realize why America was created in the first place to escape from all the evil cultures of the world. The only thing that comforts both of us is that we know as Christians Jesus is coming back. Jesus is coming back to get rid of “all the bad people” and my son loves to reflect on that. That Jesus is going to come back and get rid of ALL THE BAD PEOPLE.


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