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America doesn't get much safer than this.

An affluent suburban jewel just 20 miles from New York City, Ridgewood is a place where police must scold residents for leaving doors unlocked. Where street gangs roam only in the movies.Maybe once a year someone reports a child was molested, but police quickly add that no such reports have proved true for five years, at the very least.

Still, Rob and Debbie Maher take no chances.

On the first day of school, a popular Ridgewood ritual of picture-taking and hugs and tear-choked smiles, the couple trooped to the brick Ridge School with their children and met their teachers.

When 6-year-old Heather skips off to Daisy Scouts, Debbie Maher is right behind her at the door. She hands her daughter to the troop leader, a mother she knows.

When David, their sturdy 10-year-old, races onto the soccer field, his parents are there to cheer him - and check out his coach. When David takes his piano lesson, Debbie Maher usually sits through the scales and arpeggios.

"We just don't leave our kids with people we don't know," says Debbie Maher, an animated 39-year-old housewife.

The Mahers speak wistfully of their own childhoods spent wheeling carefree about town on bikes, when somebody else's mother told yours if you made mischief, when a whole neighborhood felt like family.

They wouldn't dream of giving their own children such freedom.

It's not that they expect Heather or David to do anything wrong. Says Rob, an affable 38-year-old baritone in the Metropolitan Opera chorus, "I'm worried about other people."

Not all Ridgewood parents are as cautious. Yet here and elsewhere, many are haunted by endless news of another molester, another kidnapping at a day-care center, a church, a youth group.

Their fears blanket the traditional child's landscape with suspicion. Kids are drilled in how to avoid abuse - even, in extreme cases, to the point of trying to create 40-pound Terminators. Innocent caregivers adjust their conduct to avoid accusations.

Are parents justified in their fears?

Most sex crimes against children are committed by a family member, and abductions by non-relatives are rarer still.

Even child-safety experts say today's anxious moms and dads may be victims of too much crime reporting. See more, fear more. Some also blame politicians who beat the drum of fear.

But parents today also take more risks.

Yesterday's mom was less likely to have a job and, if she did, often got a relative to baby-sit. Today, many moms and dads must rely on strangers to care for their chil-dren.

Americans also move more these days, shattering the cohesion that helped make yesterday's neighborhood safe because you knew most everyone who lived there.

This generation of parents also is more open about once-taboo subjects like sex abuse and incest, and encouraging tykes to speak up inevitably leads to even more awareness and candor.

There are places in America where parents have tangible worries - about sniper fire, about feeding their children, about finding affordable child-care. But not in Ridgewood. And yet they still worry.

"The terror of being a parent is universal, and timeless," says James Garbarino, a psychologist and author who runs Cornell University's Family Life Development Center. "I'm sure that cave parents said to their kids, `Be careful when you go out. There are tigers out there.' "

It's how parents convey these fears that matters, says Garbarino, an expert on violence against children.

"You have to look at the cost of making kids suspicious of the key people in their lives," he says. "If you do that, you make them more vulnerable to any individual abuser. Then you can't trust anybody."

The plane had just landed at New York's La Guardia Airport. The girl, perhaps 4 or 5 years old, stood in the aisle by Christine Lavin's seat.

"I smiled, `Is it fun for you to ride on an airplane?' I asked her," Lavin recounted in a short item in The New York Times.

"She looked up at me, then looked behind her and in a shrill, anxious voice yelled `Mommy! A stranger is talking to me.' I was embarrassed and in my calm, most reassuring voice I said: `You have nothing to worry about; you're with your mom. Sometimes passengers who don't know one another just talk pleasantly when they're waiting to get off the plane.'

"`In an even louder voice she screamed, `Mommy! She's still doing it!' "

Lavin is a singer-songwriter; her fans can attest that she is a harmless 43-year-old. But she has had other unnerving encounters with children.

One morning, near her home in New York City, she came upon a girl whose bike was stuck in a rut on a park path. "I said, `Here, let me help you.' "

Lavin never had a chance. The child fled.

Wary parents have long expected schools to help teach their children to navigate a world that includes the occasional creep. But heightened fears of sexual abuse and the new frankness is influencing curriculum.

That weirdo who used lollipops to entice girls and boys in school movies of yore is a has-been. Those scary and vague lectures about not accepting rides from strangers are passe.

In Dade County, Fla., a television news report interviewed parents bragging that their children never talk to strangers, but showed how easy it was to approach children in a park. So the district launched the Safe Child Program for kids from pre-kindergarten through second grade.

Teachers play roles, making unwelcome advances to children. They then instruct kids how to protect themselves - whether from strangers or people they know. Among the lessons: "Your body belongs to you" and "You have a right to say who touches you, and how" and the all-important "If you're asked to keep a secret, say, `No, I'm going to tell.' "

Children also learn security techniques. If home alone when a stranger calls on the telephone, after "hello," give no information and then say: "My dad is lying down, may I take a message?"

If approached by someone unknown, say nothing and stay at least an arm's reach away (the length of a grown-up's arm, plus a step back).

A slew of books offer similar - or more drastic - advice.

"The attacker confronts you in the playground while you have your skateboard in your hand," writes Michael DePasquale Jr., in "Streetwise Safety for Children."

"As he goes to grab you, you immediately bring the skateboard up, striking to the side of his head. You finish the move by kicking the attacker in the shin for a quick getaway."

DePasquale's book is illustrated with photographs of a shrimp-size boy whacking a mean-looking much bigger boy with a board. He offers all manner of tactics - "Defense with a Hockey Stick," "Front Choke or Grab," "Bear Hug Attack" - and advice.

On taking precautions at the mall: Children should wait for rides inside a closed mall door. "This way, they cannot be thrown into a car or van as easily as if they were waiting on the sidewalk."

For a lesson in how the world has changed, look to the Boy Scouts.

For generations, the Scout motto has been "Be prepared." But today's Scouts are being prepared for things that yesterday's Scouts never discussed; in 1995, a would-be Scout must learn self-protection of the most intimate kind before he can think about building a camp-fire or using a compass.

Presented as a parents' guide in the Boy Scout Handbook, the material is intended for review by a boy and at least one parent.

It begins with tips for adults who lurch into abuse ("Close your eyes and imagine you're hearing what your child is about to hear"). From there, it shifts to proper responses when a child discloses abuse ("DON'T panic or overreact . . . ") and teaching assertiveness ("When feeling threatened, your child must feel free to exercise the right to trust his or her instincts and feelings").

Finally, the guide suggests hypothetical situations to serve as a basis for discussions between parent and son.

Fending off schoolyard drug pushers and unwanted picture-takers are covered here, as are how to respond when someone touches you in a public restroom ("Yell `STOP THAT' as loudly as you can") or if a friend's older brother wants to play "doctor" ("Keep your clothes on").

Now, the 4.3 million member Scouts see videos on molestation - "It Happened to Me," for Cub Scouts ages 6 to 9, and "A Time to Tell," for Boy Scouts 11 to 14.

Scoutmaster training includes a 90-minute videotape explaining abuse and BSA policies, including checking references, requiring that two adults accompany any outing and barring any adult, except the boy's parent, from sleeping in a tent with a boy.