Better to be a safe than sorry parent

Where and when I can help it, I want my daughters to emerge from their childhood unscathed - physically, mentally and emotionally

It's strange for a parenting column to start with the tale of a creepy old man, but please bear with me.

At the club where I swim regularly before reporting for work on weekdays, there is a white-haired old man who is way more comfortable with his own naked body than others seem to be with his parading it around the men's changing room.

For him, "changing room" is a misnomer - it seems he uses it far less to change into and out of his swimgear than as his personal fashion runway for a new line of Emperor's New Clothes.

He would take the longest possible time to complete his routine, which includes blow-drying his private areas with two hairdryers at the same time. (Apparently, he doesn't care for the sign that prohibits the use of the hairdryers on any other part of the body except the head.)

While doing all of the above, he would try to catch the eye of most others in the changing room, in order to exchange friendly smiles with them. (Recently, he even did a No. 2 in a toilet cubicle with the door open, but that's another story - or maybe not.)

How should a father advise his young son to behave around that old man if they encountered him in the changing room?

After all, it's not wrong for a man to be naked in a men's changing room. And apart from using the club's hairdryers for the wrong kind of hair, the old man does not behave inappropriately (not to my knowledge anyway).

I once overheard a father in the club tell his young son to avoid men who stay naked in the changing room for more than a tad too long. That piece of advice may sound a little extreme, but I totally understand where the concerned dad was coming from.

It has nothing to do with those hilarious urinal rules that most men seem to agree on instinctively without once talking about them, including "Don't use the urinal directly next to another man's" and "Don't make eye contact with another man while you are doing No. 1".

Instead, that father's perhaps overly cautious advice to his son has everything to do with being alert to the smallest signs of possible danger in this #metoo age, where there's an increasing number of media reports of all manner of sex crimes; alert to the kinds of behaviour that make us feel uncomfortable in any way.

It's about protecting oneself and teaching one's children to protect themselves.

I cannot disagree more with the experts and parents who have criticised the Girl Scouts of America for recently issuing a statement advising parents not to force their children to give thank-you hugs to people who present them Christmas gifts.

The Girl Scouts organisation explained its advice in a statement: "Think of it this way - telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn't seen this person in a while, or because they gave her a gift, can set the stage for her questioning whether she 'owes' another person any type of physical affection when they have bought her dinner, or done something else seemingly nice, for her later in life."

It was soon slammed on social media for teaching kids to be unnecessarily paranoid and for being sick in the head because it thinks the worst of others. ("It's a perverted mind that thinks hugging is sexual harassment in nature," writes a Facebook user named Oscar Damaso.)

Thankfully, there was an equal number of people who supported the organisation's statement. (Alexandria Lynn, another Facebook user, says children "should be allowed to express their feelings as well as their limits. It won't change their ability to love. If anything, forcing a child to hug a person she doesn't want to can tell a child that she doesn't get to have her personal space respected".)

If being a tad paranoid is wrong, I don't want to be right. I don't want my two daughters to learn everything the hard way - by falling down and getting hurt.

As a parent, I am not like some species of eagle that is said to teach its young to fly by pushing the little ones out of the nest.

Since I became a father 10 years ago, my obsessive-compulsive instincts have gone into overdrive for the protection of my two daughters and, yet, they have had accidents.

So, they will already be learning many things the hard way.

But where and when I can help it, I want them to emerge from their childhood unscathed - physically, mentally and emotionally.

There will be those who will pooh-pooh modern-day parenting paraphernalia such as table corner protectors. They will say, "Look at me now, sharp corners never killed me." Good for them, if they have both their eyes still intact and working.

I will take any precaution if it occurs to me to take it and if it's available to me.

I'm not stupid. I know accidents cannot be totally avoided.

I didn't get rid of tables in my home when my daughters were born, even though I nearly bit off my tongue after falling and hitting my jaw against a tabletop when I was learning to walk more than 30 years ago. Look at me now: I still have my tongue, which was heavily stitched and, despite my parents' fears, I still can talk.

I won't apologise for being a tad too cautious in my approach to parenting. I have advised my daughters to steer clear of people who seem to enjoy flaunting their nakedness in shared changing rooms because that is slightly aggressive behaviour, if you ask me.

If it turns out that the creepy old man is not so creepy after all, and that he is usually a tad too long being naked because, well, he usually takes a tad too long to do everything else, then no harm's done.

Then, I shall finally make eye contact with him and give him a genuine smile and also encourage my daughters to do the same.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'Better to be a safe than sorry parent'. Print Edition | Subscribe