In mid-November I wrote a post about my internal conflict over how to keep my kids safe without smothering them. It’s an issue that I still struggle with. It’s coming to the fore now because Hannah is not quite so shy as she used to be. I wouldn’t call her trusting, but when she likes someone she will talk and talk and talk. Other mothers at the park get her whole life story, are treated to her personal rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie, or are presented with gifts of leaves and sticks.
I’ve been wondering what I should tell Hannah about talking to strangers. I’ve seen the news magazines showing parents who swore up and down that their children would never, ever get into a stranger’s car. And then some producer shows them a picture of a ‘lost puppy’ and they jump right in to the guy’s van. Their parents had talked at length about ‘stranger danger’, and the message hadn’t sunk in. I’ve also had some personal experience seeing kids discount the messages of their parents. When I was a teenage babysitter on one occasion some old guy in the park offered my young charges a bunch of unwrapped candies. They were extremely angry when I denied them the treat – all the warnings about not accepting food from strangers paled in comparison to a handful of linty chocolates.
So here’s my quandary. I don’t want to scare my kid. I don’t want her to feel that she must be afraid of everyone. I think that it’s likely that my most dire warnings would be fairly useless anyway. But I also feel that it’s my responsibility to prepare both of my kids for the world, to let them know that not everyone has good intentions. That it’s just not necessary to tell complete strangers personal details about yourself.
I shared my quandary with a friend, and she recommended Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. I borrowed it from the library and I just finished reading it, and it was very helpful. I would recommend the book to anyone who is struggling with these sorts of issues.
The first thing that I got from the book was that kids need to develop and hone their instincts about who is safe and who is not. I know Hannah has her own instincts, because she is very selective about who she opens up with. Rather than making blanket statements to her like, “Don’t talk to strangers,” it’s more helpful to allow her to approach people on her own terms. Then as parents we can discuss the interactions she has, and teach her some basic safety rules.
The book also discusses what sort of information kids need to have before you allow them to be outside your house without supervision. It was really practical and concrete, and helped me to develop an idea of what sort of knowledge and abilities I should be cultivating in my kids. And de Becker also confirmed what I already knew, which is that the likelihood that my child will be abducted is virtually nil.
The book includes a list of signs that indicate someone is up to no good. It was interesting to me, because I was approached on a busy sidewalk on a sunny afternoon 7 or 8 years ago by someone who was very compelling. He gave me his phone number and wanted me to call him. I told him that I had a boyfriend, and he said it didn’t matter. Dude was charming and friendly, and because of the setting I didn’t feel at all alarmed. Later, I saw a news report saying that someone who looked an awful lot like him had recently been arrested. I knew it was the same guy, but I managed to convince myself I was probably wrong. After all, he had been so nice. Reading this book, and assessing the signals he gave off, I realized unequivocally that he was Bad News. Even as an adult I still harboured a distorted idea that bad guys would somehow look ‘bad’ – it turns out that they don’t.
This book didn’t address all of my questions, and I wouldn’t say that I completely agreed with every point. I felt that portions were unnecessarily frightening. For example, the author included several stories about people being attacked by strangers, even as he said this never happens. So it isn’t perfect. On the whole, though, the information was solid and helpful.
I now feel as if I have some answers on how to teach my kids about safety, and how to protect them without keeping them indoors for the rest of their lives. I imagine that I will re-read this one more than once as my kids get older and new issues arise.