Parents worry. I think we can all agree on that one.
Among all the concerns that parents deal with, safety is up toward the top.
Sweet Girl has always been overly cautious, but in the last year or so, she’s started physically recoiling from most men as she and I cross paths with them when we’re out in public. Sometimes she’ll grab hold of my hand tightly, sometimes she’ll switch to the other side of me, and sometimes she won’t go anywhere near that person. It hasn’t caused her to decide not to go somewhere, so I hadn’t been concerned, besides the thought that she could be offending these people if they notice her aversion.
It is that vulnerability and evidence of fear that worries me after reading Gavin De Becker’s Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). I learned that seeming vulnerable or “quiet, withdrawn, compliant, easy to manipulate” are traits that predators watch for.
However, that initial reaction can be a good thing. “There are people they recoil from, and that reaction is something to cherish and to nurture, not something to force them to ignore.” So I will not be telling SG not to be afraid, but neither do I want her walking around in a constant state of fear. I want her to follow her intuition.
The risks to children can seem overwhelming. That’s why, after completing De Becker’s Gift of Fear last month, I wanted to read his book about what risks children face and how parents can help kids learn warning signs and safety skills. In Gift of Fear, De Becker’s main point was that we should not deny or discount our intuition. “It’s not always be the loudest voice, but it is the wisest.”
So what should we be aware of regarding children’s safety?
“Of all the serious harms that could come to your child, sexual abuse is the one that most needs your attention and your intuition. And, unfortunately, the odds are getting worse, not better. One in three girls and one in six boys will have sexual contact with an adult. Sometimes it’s a neighbor and sometimes it’s a day-care worker, but a family member is still most likely to be the sexual abuser.”
De Becker writes that often parents see their kids as partners in their safety, but…
“Until a child is old enough to understand what predatory strategies look like, old enough and confident enough to resist them, assertive enough to seek help, powerful enough to enforce the word No—until all that happens, a child is too young to be his own protector, too young to merit any of your reliance, too young to be part of the defense system, period.” (At the end of this post, I have added De Becker’s list of things children should know before they are ever alone in public.)
“Child victimization is a big issue and one that should be on all parents’ minds. There are many things we can do to help ensure the safety of children through increased awareness, education, advocacy and action. We need to teach kids how to recognize, interrupt and report inappropriate behaviors and situations.”
How can I teach my child about risk without causing too much fear?
Constant depiction of a dangerous world leads children (and adults) to believe they are not competent to meet the challenges of life, and that belief can permeate the entire experience of life.
True fear is involuntary. It’s there to get our attention if something in our environment signals us that we are in danger. However, “unwarranted fear or worry will always be based upon something in your imagination or your memory. Worry is the fear we manufacture; it is a choice… When someone feels fear constantly, there is no signal left for when it’s really needed, which actually making them less safe.”
Reading this book was seriously freaking me out. I was jumpy, not sleeping well, and couldn’t stop obsessing about it. I tried to quickly finish the rest of the book and wanted to convey to SG some basic points, which I did. She even had some ideas and points to bring up as well. We discussed:
- Wherever you are, you can call home at any time.
- No adult should ever touch (specific parts) or ask you to touch them, watch them, etc.
- No matter what you want to tell me, I can handle it and I will believe you.
- You are the most important person to me and you matter.
- When you feel uncomfortable about someone, trust yourself and get away.
- When you are ready to learn ways to protect yourself, we will learn together.
I feel better that we’ve had this discussion and that it’s something on her radar. I hope just being aware of some dangers but also learning to trust her inner voice might help her.
What are your thoughts on this issue?
Thanks for reading!
Child Lures website with free downloads, parent resources, as well as materials for schools and religious organizations with the goal of helping to prevent crimes against children and youth through education and awareness. (I ordered the Parent Guide.)
Ellen Snortland’s Beauty Bites Beast – Parents must first un-teach the cultural lesson that girls are not able to defend themselves. “It’s not a how-to book,” she writes, “but a ‘How Come?’ book. Snortland says that self-defense training for girls should be as automatic as teaching them to swim, and the best place to get that training is from IMPACT or KIDPOWER.
(If you’re raising boys, maybe this one would be helpful: Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack.)
IMPACT for Kids Age-appropriate personal safety education classes work to strengthen children’s emotional and psychological integrity and focus on developing smart safety habits when dealing with strangers and people they know.
The National Center for Victims of Crime has specific recommendations on what to talk to kids about.
Finally, as promised, De Becker’s test of what children would ideally know before they are ever alone in public.
1. How to honor their feelings—if someone makes them uncomfortable, that’s an important signal; 2. You (the parents) are strong enough to hear about any experience they’ve had, no matter how unpleasant; 3. It’s okay to rebuff and defy adults; 4. It’s okay to be assertive; 5. How to ask for assistance or help; 6. How to choose who to ask; 7. How to describe their peril; 8. It’s okay to strike, even to injure, someone if they believe they are in danger, and that you’ll support any action they take as a result of feeling uncomfortable or afraid; 9. It’s okay to make noise, to scream, to yell, to run; 10. If someone ever tries to force them to go somewhere, what they scream should include, “This is not my father” (because onlookers seeing a child scream or even struggle are likely to assume the adult is a parent); 11. If someone says “Don’t yell,” the thing to do is yell (and the corollary: If someone says “Don’t tell,” the thing to do is tell); 12. To fully resist ever going anywhere out of public view with someone they don’t know, and particularly to resist going anywhere with someone who tries to persuade them.