When Safety Means Putting Some Fear Into Kids

We embraced the Kid Power approach to child safety when our oldest child was young. We never used scary words like kidnapper, molester or predator. We talked about boundaries, good versus bad secrets, and we role played to demonstrate how to handle situations like when someone knocks on the door or touches her in a way that makes her uncomfortable (whether that be a stranger or a trusted person). I thought we were doing everything right to build a safe childhood for our children, but as our two kids got older, there were times when it was clear they were not getting the message. They were way too trusting, and it made me uncomfortable. After the recent kidnapping of a Fresno girl, I broke down and told my daughter what happened (leaving out the harsher details). As much as I hated having to do it, I decided it was finally time to put a little fear in her to help keep her safe.

During a multi-family camping trip last year, my daughter went into a stranger’s tent to get glow-sticks that had been promised. Thankfully, nothing bad happened and it truly was an offering of glow-sticks with nothing in return, but it scared me. I tried talking to my daughter about it after, but she couldn’t see why I didn’t understand that it was about glow-sticks. Glow-sticks were offered and who would turn down a glow-stick? Duh, mom. As we drove toward the campgrounds again this year, I had a very kid-friendly talk with my children about strangers and how I did not want them going into the campsites of anyone we don’t know.

“But, if we meet them and play with them, then we know them,” my daughter said, while her younger brother echoed in agreement with “uh huh” to everything she said.

“We don’t really know them,” I said, while trying to remember my Kid Power script. “Knowing someone is knowing their name, where they live, what they like…”

“We can ask them those things,” she responded. “When I meet them, I can ask their name and where they live.”

“But that’s not knowing who they are as a person. Like with your friends, you know what they like on their pizza.” The pizza reference was directly from a Kid Power workshop.

“What does pizza have to do with going into a campsite? I can ask what they like on their pizza.” Little brother piped in with, “Are we going to get pizza?”

It ended with me saying that the rule was no going into other campsites unless I say it’s okay. My job is to keep them safe, and this is the rule I’m setting to help do that. Everyone agreed. Fast forward to later that afternoon when my daughter was missing from the approved play area, only to be found standing at the back of a campsite with two men, one standing on each side of her.

When I spotted my daughter, panic ran through my body. While it was quickly apparent that these men actually thought they were being helpful, the panic remained. (My daughter and two boys in our group had asked if they could get some charcoal for a game they were playing. They knew the moms on our trip weren’t going to give them any charcoal, so they decided to ask others. The boys waited in the middle of the road, while my daughter went 30 feet into the woods to ask for the charcoal. When the men saw me, they started to ask me how much charcoal I needed, clearly concerned we had run out.) I thanked the men, explained the charcoal situation, and made the kids return to our campsite. I pulled my daughter aside and talked to her about our rule, what she did and that I was scared. She wasn’t allowed to leave our campsite for the rest of the trip.

When we got home, I talked about it again with both kids. They did not see the problem and both thought I was overreacting. Saying that “bad things can happen,” didn’t mean anything to them. My kids are confident and my daughter felt safe while asking for charcoal, even though she knew she was breaking my safety rule. I remembered watching an episode of Oprah years ago when moms were interviewed on the park about how their child would respond to a stranger trying to lure them away. As the moms all confidently said their child would know better than to go anywhere with a stranger, in the back of the screen, a man was luring the kids away from the park, one at a time, asking for help looking for his puppy. The same thing was repeated in a neighborhood in the evening while kids played outside. The terror in the mothers’ faces when they turned around and saw they were wrong, stayed with me. It’s how I felt while camping. I used the puppy example with my kids, giving them a hypothetical situation where an unknown person may approach to ask for help looking for a lost puppy. Before I could ask a question, both of my kids said they would help. It’s a puppy, after all! My kids kept talking, letting me know they’d go anywhere with anyone if a puppy, candy or ice cream were promised. I didn’t feel good about their futures.

A few days later as we drove on the freeway, an Amber Alert flashed on a screen. I told the kids it was a message saying a child was taken and everyone needed to help finding him or her. I thought I was pushing it by mentioning the alert, but neither kid looked up from their books. My daughter gave a low “uh huh” that let me know she wasn’t really paying attention. When we got home, I saw it was a child taken by a non-custodial parent, which was not a story that my kids would understand or be concerned about. I let it go, until an Amber Alert went out last week in the sad and scary Fresno kidnapping. Thankfully the Amber Alert system worked perfectly as designed and as a result, the girl was saved thanks to a local hero who had seen the news. It was a story I felt needed to be shared with my daughter, particularly because it involved a girl her age, playing with friends, with trusted adults nearby.

My husband and I told her the story, explaining how the girl was taken and how she later escaped (I also wanted her to know about fleeing a captor). We didn’t explain what this man did to the little girl, but we did say it was very lucky she survived. I felt horrible for doing this. When I explained what happened, but daughter’s eyes grew wide, making me feel worse. I finally had her attention on the subject, she was finally understanding the seriousness, and I felt awful because of it. I knew no other way to make the point about safety. I would love for her to stay innocent and trusting for as long as possible, but my approach has always been that open communication on all subjects is the way to go. Sometimes those things conflict. As my kids get older, the conversations will always get more real and more uncomfortable. We had a good talk that night. My daughter said that sometimes she feels scared playing in the backyard alone in instances where everyone was outside at one point, but then all go inside for one reason or another, leaving her alone. We talked about how she can handle that and communicate her feelings, even though I didn’t say that she’s more likely to be harmed by a mountain lion in our backyard than a person. I hope I gave her knowledge and didn’t scar her as a person. One of the hardest aspects of parenting is never being sure you are doing the right thing, regardless of how good the intentions.

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  1. October 13, 2010
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