Monday, April 5, 2010

Strangers with Candy

We received an email and phone message from our school district alerting us of two scarier than hell incidents that happened two weeks ago. I'm not sure why it took them so long to spread the word to parents and I'll hold my judgement as to whether this could hamper any investigation.

The first incident took place on a residential tree-lined street. Broad daylight. A group of students, age unknown, were approached by a man who requested they get into his car. They refused but the man followed them in his car for a period of time.

The second event happened just two days later. Apparently a few kids were on the track of what I assume is the middle/high school field when a car pulled over and started taking pictures of them.

All hyperbole aside, this is some scary shit for parents. After hearing about this I immediately conjure up this fantasy of how it would go down if my incredibly sweet and trusting six year old daughter were approached by some sick fuck looking to do her harm. He'd pull over and ask her if she could help him find his lost dog (a DOG?! Yes, of course random person! I'd love to help you find Mr. Beaujangles!). I think back to an ancient Oprah episode titled "Child Lures" I caught when I was just a child myself.

The mother of that girl on the playground laughed. But I want to cry. I assume she was laughing out of sheer incredulous disappointment that her seemingly shy daughter went off with the strange man (played by Ken Wooden, author and children's safety advocate).
At eight, I bet that mother had talked with her child many times about what she ought to do if approached by someone she didn't know. The thing is -- as parents we can only fill our brains with hope and tamp down the fear. We never know how our kids will act when we're not around, or when we're preoccupied for all of one minute while outside playing on a gorgeous spring afternoon. We tell ourselves that our frequent reminders and gentle lecturing will ultimately quell most of their impulsive decision making for if they are, god forbid, ever propositioned. We tell ourselves this because the alternative scenario is too heart wrenching to even consider.

In the book Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) Gavin de Becker makes this brilliant observation:
...[The Rule} is intended to provide protection in the event the child is alone somewhere, because if a parent is present, then what difference does it make if a young child speaks with a stranger? The irony is that if your child is ever lost in public, the ability to talk to strangers is actually the single greatest asset he could have. To seek assistance, to describe one’s situation, to give a phone number, to ask advice, to say No – all these interactions require the child to speak with strangers. If kids view talking to strangers as the threshold they mustn’t cross, then when they do cross it (and they will), they have no further tools. Talking is just talking, after all, but since what we really want to avoid is our child going somewhere with someone, that’s the thing to teach them about.

This is what I tell my daughter. I try to remind her as frequently as I can while keeping in mind that there's the chance my quizzing her on what she would do in such a situation could ultimately lead to an unhealthy fear of strangers. But maybe a little fear is a good thing?
What I tell her is that she should never, under any circumstances, go somewhere with another person unless her father or I am with her or we have given her permission ahead of time. I tell that if she is approached by someone she has not met before to come find me. If I am not around she should immediately find the closest mother with children. If no moms are around she needs to run, fast, and get to a house with a car in the driveway. Knock LOUDLY on the door and yell for help.

What else is there to say?
What do YOU say to your kids about this subject? How do they react? Do you provide different information as they get older?


  1. We do a little bit of role-play now and then, and I introduce the notion of people who are angry or want help without introducing the more frightening ideas of violence or sexual assault.

    "What if you're playing outside when someone comes and says their window was broken by some kids and he knows it was you and you have to clean up the mess?" "What if someone says that I need you and they're supposed to bring you to me?" and, like you mention:"What if someone says they need help looking for a dog?"

    Someone grabs you - you yell "This isn't my dad/mom!" Someone says I need you, you say "what's the code word?" (We have a code word) Someone says they need help looking for a dog, you say no, and if they keep following and asking, you go to the next house as if it were yours, knock on the door loudly and yell "Dad! This guy needs help looking for a dog!"

    These are mostly ideas that I got from other people, but the one thing I add in that's all me is this:

    These ideas (and role-play calling 911, for instance) are all like seatbelts -- there's no reason to think you'll need them (they've never been in an accident, so I can say "we've never even been in an accident, right?"), but it's just plain good sense to be prepared, just in case.

    And then I keep worrying.

    It's a fine line we walk, my friend!

  2. All good advice! Thanks for commenting!
    I like the role playing idea and will certainly add that to the repertoire. We do have a code word and have told our daughter that it's to be used when she's scared and she can't see us, either at home or when we're out and about. But what exactly does the code word do if you are far enough away to not hear them? Or if they're older and perhaps with a friend, no adults present?

  3. My boys are only 1 & 2.5... but we've already decided that they are simply never leaving our site. Ever. Until they turn 40.

    But seriously. No, wait that was pretty serious.

  4. @ Mama Z - It's just that I can imagine a circumstance (say, I'm at the grocery store and my girl is with me but my boy is waiting in the car and reading, and the girl hurts herself in some way and I do have to get him to come in the store but can't leave her. Or I've broken my leg!)in which I would, in fact, need him to come to me, and I would send some stranger to get him. I would tell the stranger the codeword, he would ask for it, and upon getting it, would agree to go with the adult I've sent for him.

    Really - I read this one in a parenting magazine. I never much liked them, and haven't read any for ages, but one thing they are good at is addressing parental fears!