Jul 11, 2013

"Stranger Danger" or "Living in Fear"... which is it??

It's a normal conversation to have with your child. (right??)

It starts with a question: "What would you do if a stranger tried to convince you to get in their car?"

My 8-year-old girl: "I would say NO."
My 10-year-old boy: "I would use my new Karate skills and punch them in the head."

"What if you were at home alone (or I was in the shower) and someone came to the door and rang the doorbell asking you to help them find their lost dog?"

My 8-year-old girl: "I would say NO."
My 10-year-old boy: "It depends on if they really seemed to be telling the truth, because you tell us to help people."

"What if you were walking to or from school alone and someone tried to pull you into their car?"

 My 8-year-old girl: "I would say NO and start to run and scream."
 My 10-year-old boy: "I would kick them in the shins and punch them in the stomach and take their car keys and run to the closest house and call the police."

One day, at the beginning of the summer, we were talking through both these and other possible situations (What if I got hurt when we were out riding bikes, or I fell off a chair in the kitchen and bumped my head?).  I was teaching my kids how to make an emergency call on my cell phone and my son got quiet and suddenly asked the inevitable question: "But mom, why would someone try to kidnap me?"

My answer was vague.  "Sometimes people are mentally ill and they want to hurt other people."

My son: "So, how many people are like that?  Are there a lot of people driving around looking to hurt a child?  What would they do with me if they got me?"

This wasn't going well at all.  Suddenly I wondered what the heck I was doing.  I know that most violent crimes are committed by people who know the victim.  So, are there really random people driving around looking for a kid to pick up??  Are there more people like that now then there were 20, 40, 60 years ago?

I was a "latch-key" kid.  I walked myself to and from the bus stop before and after school starting when I was 9 years old.  My parents both worked full time and once my sister was in Jr. High (she is 3.5 years older than me), I would often come home to an empty house.  I remember having similar conversations with my parents, being constantly on my guard as I walked alone, painfully aware that I was a little minnow in a shark tank.  I watched the news in the evenings with my parents.  I heard all the bad news, the car-jackings, the drive-bys (hey - I live in California), and then the unthinkable... 

When I was around 10 or 11 years old, a little girl, my same age, just a mile or so down the road, walked home to an empty house and a man followed her into her house and raped her.  It was horrible, my worst nightmare.  I had nightmares and was plagued with an irrational fear that I was going to be attacked.

Now I am a mother and I protect my kids from the news, they aren't allowed to watch at all.  I protect my kids from being alone, my son is 10 and the longest he's been left alone is maybe 10 minutes while I walked down to the neighbor's house.  I want to protect my children's innocence, and I want them to be as wise and aware.  So we have these ridiculous conversations that make me feel like I am creating unnecessary fear, but I secretly wonder if it's not enough.

I am a cautious person, I got marked down on my drivers test for being overly-cautious (read: slow) on my left-hand turns.   It is just one of the paradoxes in my personality, because I can be adventurous, but only when the potential for chaos is minimized. (For example: I have eaten escargot and have gone para-sailing, but would never eat steak tartare or jump out of an airplane; I want to learn how to surf and participate in the "Sharkfest Swim" in the San Francisco Bay - where you swim from Alcatraz to the mainland, but don't think SCUBA diving is worth the risk.)

Sometimes I find me rolling my eyes at myself when I needlessly worry about my son walking across the street without me.  After all, he's going to be on safety patrol next month and will be walking OTHER children across the street.

There is, deep within me, the belief that protecting my children makes me a good mom.

At the same time, there is a knowledge that I can't protect my children from the world forever, and what if I am setting them up for failure, or worse, making them WEIRD, because of how protective I am?

So I honestly want to know... how do you handle this topic with your kids?  Do you give them the gory details (one of my daughter's friends told my daughter to watch out for men who like to touch little girls on their privates), or do you act as though nothing will happen to them?  What do you warn them about?  How far do you go in the "don't let someone touch your privates" conversation?

How do you help your kids be wise and aware, without filling them with an irrational fear of every stranger? 

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