One day at my library, a third-grade girl was dropped off to meet her tutor, and the tutor wasn’t there. The girl was very upset and scared. We tried to call the mother, but couldn’t reach her. The mom showed up pretty soon and the girl started crying again and said, “I was alone here and I thought that somebody would steal me and kill me!”
And I thought, Maybe we’ve scared our kids too much.
I work in a small, quiet, suburban, public library. It’s pretty safe as public places go. Should the mom have walked the girl in? Sure. Should the girl have told the staff that she was alone and scared? Of course. Was it likely that in front of our desk someone would pull her out the door and kill her. Not likely.
We’ve scared our kids so much with our stranger danger talks, but yet we haven’t always given them the right tools to work with in assessing and handling a situation. We tell them not to talk to strangers, but we also tell them to be respectful to adults. We want to avoid something bad happening, but we don’t let them know that adults are generally good.
As a parent, this is what I tell my seven- and ten-year-old girls.
Every time we drive somewhere we use our seatbelts. Even though we don’t expect to have an accident. Even though I drive carefully and follow the rules so that we won’t have an accident. But if something went wrong, and we did have an accident, our seatbelts would help keep us safe. So, when I talk to you about what to do if someone beckons you over to a car (run away) or tries to grab you (kick, bite, scream), it is not that I expect these things to happen to you. We talk about it so you’ll know what to do. Just like I don’t drive in a way that is unsafe and could cause an accident, I don’t allow you to be in situations where I believe you would be unsafe. Most people are good and don’t mean any harm to kids, but being prepared is just like wearing seat belts, or learning about dialing 911, or fire alarms in school.
I want my kids to feel confident in handling a scary situation, but I don’t want to scare them. It is a fine line, and a personal decision. The schools are stepping in to tell our children to be scared of strangers, but we have to take part in the message. I don’t want my kids to be unsafe, but I don’t want them terrified when they were really safe the whole time.
I don’t have all the answers. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve just tried to think what preventing child abuse meant to me. I’ve talked about helping moms and dads cope with a tantrum or crying child. I’ve talked about taking care of yourself and knowing when you might need a break. I’ve talked about setting limits for children and what to do to help lost children. Today, it was how to prepare your child to handle something frightening. Overall, just know that we can all do our part to protect and empower these children we see, we teach, we raise, and we love.