Why We Can't Have Another Shirley Temple

By Lenore Skenazy

February 20, 2014 4 min read

It's lucky Shirley Temple, who died last week, came along when she did. The dimpled darling of the Depression not only spread sunshine throughout the 1930s but also simply could not have had her career today. Too many perverts!

By that, I mean us.

Most of us can no longer watch a movie starring a little girl surrounded by a lot of adult men — even singing ones — without feeling queasy. Our thoughts have been perverted. We've been trained to see child-adult interactions through the lens of lechery. It's tragic.

Oh, don't get me wrong! It's not tragic that the topic of child abuse is no longer taboo. It's actually great that adults talk about it now and that kids are taught about it. I taught my own sons pretty early to "recognize, resist and report" abuse — instructions they were later given again, at Boy Scouts. (And if you have just refrained from making a mental Boy Scout joke, you deserve some sort of badge.) No, what's tragic is that in our eagerness to protect children from evil, we have started seeing it everywhere — even where it isn't.

Consider this post on the popular parenting site Babble. A father wanted to go into the fitting room with his son to help him try on clothes. The store refused to let him in, whereupon he texted his wife, "So now when a dad is helpful and engaged with his kids he's pegged a pervert? Isn't that discrimination?"

The answers would appear to be yes and yes.

Or how about this lamentation by a dad in The Daily Telegraph? He'd been happily watching his son on the playground when he realized "a group of women had become suspicious" of his presence. "One of them, quite assertively," he said, "walked over. 'Are you here with one of the children?' she asked. The look on her face suggested this was not small talk."

It wasn't. She was suspicious of any man watching kids play. In New York City, that dread runs so deep no adults are allowed on public playgrounds without a child. (As a friend of mine pointed out, that just means predators have to grab one even before they go to the park.)

In an earlier era, kids weren't immediately seen as prey, and adults weren't automatically pervs till proven otherwise. My 93-year-old neighbor remembers going to Shirley Temple movies with her parents. Somehow, watching a curly-haired kid was fun for the whole family — even adults. It wasn't a crime to delight in kids, which is why it wasn't weird that even the adults in the movie were charmed by the girl.

But "to a 21st-century viewer, those movies look, in some cases, downright creepy," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. In the intervening 80 years, we've gone from Shirley Temple to "Toddlers & Tiaras," with a very long stop at the murder of child beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey.

If we erred on the side of innocence in the '30s, we are erring on the side of paranoia now. "We've lost something," says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, associate professor of communication studies at Widener University. "I can't even envision how you would tell a story like 'The Good Ship Lollipop' today"; that was Temple's theme song in "Bright Eyes," the happy story of a plucky orphan cheering up a bunch of gruff men.

Today the kid would need a social worker, a chaperon, a shrink — and, of course, a healthy alternative to all those lollipops.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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