We found a house and made an offer that day. No time to research the neighborhood. In the Northern Virginia real estate market, if you stop to think, someone else gets the house.

Our offer was accepted, and the house became ours. We moved in, unpacked, painted and set out to explore the neighborhood. The neighbors all seemed nice enough. And all were eager to warn us, in undertones, that we'd moved next door to a registered sex offender.

The news stunned me. Our sex offender seemed so normal -- a clean-shaven, dog-walking, lawn-mowing sort of a guy. But I looked him up on the Virginia State Police Department's Sex Offender Registry, and there he was. And he wasn't alone.

Another registered sex offender lived around the corner. And another a mile down the road, next to the elementary school, no less.

I looked at my two small boys and felt panic rising. Perhaps I could keep them indoors all summer? Maybe I could buy lots of books and videos? Ridiculous, I know, but I didn't know how to deal with this.

My elder son has always been outgoing. He talks to anyone, anywhere. This will be a useful trait when he grows up, but for now, it terrifies me.

How to talk to him about "stranger danger" without causing him to retreat into a shell? How to instill confidence and also remind him about the scary world right next door?

When I was growing up, I wandered the neighborhood for hours without checking in with my parents. I want that for my sons too -- to be able to explore without fear. I want them to know that if they need help, another neighborhood parent can be trusted. But every time I send my son out the door by himself, I feel fear. I review all of the things that could possibly go wrong, and I plan defenses against each of them.

In the end, I decided that locking the world out probably wasn't my best defense. Instead, my family and I opened our doors to the neighborhood. I met the mothers who stay at home, the retired folks who live down the way and the telecommuters a few doors over. My sons and I have delivered cookies and joined car pools.

Now my sons know which doors to knock on if they need help, and I know where to go looking if I can't see them out the window.

All of the parents on our street have memorized the faces of the nearby sex offenders. We can't protect against the unknown, but we can watch one another's kids and worry as a group. We've banded together as a neighborhood -- not to protest the offender in our midst, but to watch for dangers that seem to lurk in every shadow. The fact that I'm not alone in my vigil makes the shadows recede, if only a bit.

And our sex offender? He's still next door. He mostly keeps to himself. Some of the older neighborhood kids know who he is. My little ones don't: They're too young to use the information wisely. But I've used my neighbor in examples about stranger danger.

I ask my boys, "Do we know the people in this house? How about that one?"

When we get to my next-door neighbor's house, they say, "We don't know him!"

And I agree with them. "That's right, we don't know him. He's a stranger. So we can't talk to him. And if he tries to talk to you, you run and tell me right away." I hope that they'll internalize the message without absorbing the fear.

I know I can't keep my sons safe from everything, but I can keep my fear hidden as they -- and I -- grow into our community.

-- Donna Scaramastra Gorman