On a sunny day this past spring, my family went to the newly opened Legoland Discovery Centre in Vaughan, just north of Toronto. Our six-year-old son delighted in the sheer volume of bricks and spent most of the day joining together with other kids in the construction site play area, attempting to stuff every one of the hundreds of soft blocks into a single corner.
My husband and I mostly hung around watching him, our main function being to hold his sweatshirt while he ran from one end of the play area to the other and to praise his incredibly tall Lego creations.
That and to keep him safe.
It's not that we expected anything to happen to him. The Legoland Discovery Centre isn't a dark parking lot or a street in high-crime neighbourhood. But neither is the park or the museum, and we still keep an eye on our little guy in those places. It's just what you do as a parent. First you try, as best you reasonably can, to keep your kid from killing himself by doing things like diving head-first off monkey bars or running in front of swings in motion. Then, you stick around, in the background, so you can glance over just enough to make sure no one else is out to cause your child harm, be it a bullying older kid or a creepy adult.
Given that this is a fairly well accepted and well practiced parental role, I was surprised to learn that the Legoland Discovery Centre has a policy of not allowing adults into the park unless they are accompanied by children -- as though the presence of childless grown-ups would inevitably threaten the safety of all the happy kiddies chilling and building in the Duplo Village. Does Legoland not trust the parents of said kiddies to step in if a rogue grownup is getting too close? Is it the threat of litigation that's making them feel the need to act prophylactically in loco parentis? Have they heard nothing of the urban scourge of helicopter parents? Is equating childless adults with predators fair? Does it even offer any increased protection to kids?
These and other questions have recently come to public attention because of John St.-Onge, a 63-year-old cancer patient and Lego lover who tried to visit the Legoland Discovery Centre with his adult daughter, but was turned away because he had no kids with him. St. Onge told the National Post that he felt discriminated against. "[I was thinking]'What, are you painting a label on my back, that I'm a pedophile?'" he said. "That's what really, really, really bothered me. What do you think I'm going to do in there?"
St.-Onge makes a good point. While Legoland has every right to make policies about who it will and won't admit to its private facilities (or should have every right -- one never knows these days given the ever expanding reach of antidiscrimination law), the choice to exclude adults unaccompanied by youngsters is insulting. It's insulting to childless adults by casting them as scary freakoids who are likely to prey on children simply because they have no children of their own. And it's insulting to parents by assuming that they are not up to the task of minding their own charges well enough to keep them from getting abducted or otherwise abused by adults roaming Miniland.
Do adults sometimes do terrible things to children? Obviously yes. Should all of us, including businesses, do what we reasonably can to prevent these incidents? Again, of course. But the true picture of child exploitation is far more complex than avoiding lone weirdos in public places. A child is far more likely to be abused by someone he knows than by a stranger. And as far as handling that tiny percentage of strangers who are up to no good, a less damaging way to do so in places like Legoland is by requiring children to be accompanied by adults -- by placing the onus for protection on parents, where it should naturally reside -- which Legoland Discovery Centre already does.
But there's a greater problem here than just sending offensive messages about childless adults and parents, respectively. Rules like the Legoland one, which are becoming more and more common in parks and other kiddie-friendly locales, are changing the world children experience in a way that leaves them increasingly unprepared for dealing with real life. In trying to protect our kids, we're so limiting their contact with "outsiders" that they're not getting the chance to develop the instincts they need to distinguish friend from foe, or to learn to relate to and coexist with people of all ages who aren't specifically there to look after or entertain them.
I'm not saying these skills should be acquired by having young kids walk the streets on their own, or take rides from strangers. No, as I've argued throughout, it's parents' job to sit back but sit by and be there to step in if a child is approaching real danger. But confining children to artificial realms that are free of adults who aren't moms, dads, or nannies bearing juice boxes takes the "protection" concept too far. It creates excessively sheltered children who won't know how to take care of themselves when the time comes to do so because they've never had a chance to try. It also instills a damaging, and inaccurate, belief that no good can come of getting to know an adult stranger. Or of having to take such a stranger's needs into account.
My son had a good time at the Legoland Discovery Centre and made a few fun age-appropriate friends for a day. But who's to say he wouldn't have had a better time if he'd run into John St-Onge, a father with 72 Lego sets and 30 years of Lego experience, who could presumably have taught our young fellow a thing or two about the art of Lego construction. I'd certainly have preferred it if the decision about whether our child needed protection from a man like Mr. St-Onge had been ours.