Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Are Strangers REALLY Dangers? (Subtitle: Tales from Inside IKEA)

When my daughter was five years old, a man knocked on my apartment door, pointed to my girl and a couple of other kids playing in the courtyard, and said, "Is that your daughter?" 

I quickly assessed his facial expression and tone before deciding that I would claim her. 

He said, "I just want to let you know how happy she made me the other day. She and her friends were outside drawing pictures and she offered one to me as I walked by. I was having a horrible morning and was preparing for a long road trip for work and talking with her changed my day. I put her drawing on my dashboard and kept it there my whole trip. It made me smile. So, just thank you for raising her like you do."

I should just end the blog post right here by telling you I'm an awesome mom and I appreciate the lovely gentleman taking the time to reinforce this truth. But that's not the point (I mean, if you take that away as an aside, so be it). I could tell you the mistakes I've made as a parent just this week, but that's not as fun for me. And if you think my posts are long now . . .

The point is that if I had taught my child to be afraid of strangers . . . if I had yelled "stranger danger" every time someone with whom we do not know made eye contact with her, she would have missed out on an opportunity to make this man's day better. 

That's not to say I did not use the incident as a learning moment. After the guy left, I called Catherine over and told her what the man said and how proud I was of her for brightening his day. But I also asked her, "Now what if he had asked you to go with him as he walked toward his car?"

Catherine responded, "I would have said 'no' and I would have come and told you. He seems really nice but that doesn't matter because I don't know him and you don't go anywhere with someone you don't know." Exactly. Great answer, daughter of mine. Now go and play. (Side note - I know each kid is different and will grasp concepts at a different rate and I will admit that I trusted my daughter to absorb and use this information at an earlier age than I did my son because they see the world differently - my daughter is a cynic and my son believes all people are lovely, but by this point they are both on board with my stranger lessons.)

In the age of social media, articles and Facebook posts about alleged child snatchings spread to millions of people in no time and are taken to be the gospel truth. You have the mom in IKEA who convinced a nation her kids were about to be victims of child trafficking. Her story was retold on news sites with phrases like "harrowing tale" and "one mom's warning." But her post has since been deleted and store security never found any evidence of danger and media accountability sites have disputed her claims. There's the mom, Jodie Norton, who said a couple of "punks" tried to lure her kids into a bathroom at a hospital. Her tale of the "freaky, perverted strangers" was picked up by countless news sites and discussed on the Today Show. Only the security footage shows the people she described never interacted with her kids and the police dropped the investigation. I will admit that her emphasis on teaching her kids about "tricky people" instead of "stranger danger" makes sense, but her inflated details for the sake of publicity and shock value negate the potentially good message. And then last week there was an article about an attempted abduction at a Dunkin' Donuts in Philly. Except the parents even came out after the fact and said the man pictured in the video was not trying to steal their baby.

So these stories get shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter and everyone goes on high alert and starts commenting about what a scary world we live in and stuff like this happens "all the time now" and "you can't take your eyes off your kids for a second." But when they are retracted or affirmatively refuted, this follow up information never gets the same publicity. 

I want my kids to know that 99% of the time, strangers are just amazing people they haven't met yet. And I encourage them to talk to people they don't know. Both of my kids, especially my daughter because that's just her personality, are more confident talking to strangers than I ever was as a child. 

This doesn't mean I don't want my kids to be street smart and oblivious to the fact that there is a tiny percentage of the population that may mean them harm. As I already mentioned, I tell my kids that you NEVER go somewhere with a person you do not know. You also NEVER walk close to a car if an adult rolls down a window to ask you a question. They also know that if someone ever does grab them (which I assured them is super extremely unlikely), they are to scream as loudly as they can, kick the person's genitals (man or woman . . . because that's a shocking move either way), and jam their small, weapon-like child fingers into their assailant's eyes. 

I know awful things happen to kids. I know human trafficking is real and it's horrifying and desperately sad. (I've also learned that it's usually done by grooming and coercing vulnerable kids, not grabbing them from a crowded department store.) I want to raise children who are alert to their surroundings and who have the tools in their brain to make wise choices about the company they keep and the places they go.

At the same time, I refuse to have my kids believe the world is a terrifying place full of monsters. I don't want them to be afraid to ask an adult for help because that person is a "stranger." I don't want them automatically to suspect that the man sitting alone at the playground is waiting for the right moment to kidnap them . . . which I balance by telling my kids always to be aware of all people around them and to trust their instincts if they feel unsafe. And always to travel in packs. 

My kids (and your kids) will find much greater risk to their lives by riding to school in a car or playing sports or walking through a parking lot or on a crosswalk or swimming at the local pool or eating too much junk food or being in a home with an unsecured gun. But most of our kids do some of these things and many do all of them. 

Have you seen that news article that got shared 300,000 times on Facebook and Twitter and got featured on The Today Show? You know - the one in which a terrified mom tells a reporter that she was driving her daughter to school and a car came flying through the stop sign and she slammed on her brakes just in time! No? Of course not. Me, either. But that very real and frequent danger doesn't grab the worried-riddled parent like an abduction scare. 

I read an article recently that included the quote "a child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack (than be kidnapped by a stranger), and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents never even consider the risk." When was the last time you fretted over your child's risk of a heart attack? I've never even thought about it. Our children also are twice as likely to be struck by lightning than be the victim of stranger abduction. So I teach my kids not to play outside in the middle of a thunderstorm and I teach my kids to know who and what is around them at all times . . . and will admit despite all I'm writing here that the latter worries me more even knowing the chance of real danger is lower. 

The thought of someone taking my child is terrifying and makes me ill just thinking about it. I have had those moments when my heart stopped because I couldn't find them. I've experienced that maternal instinct (it's real and it's powerful) when something seemed off and I took steps to get my kids away without alarming them. But for the sake of our kids and their anxiety level and letting them play and teaching them confidence in interacting with the world around them, don't we need to be careful to keep potential dangers in perspective? And refrain from feeding the anxiety beast by sharing scary "it happened to me" Facebook posts until the truth is a bit more clear?

Friday, April 7, 2017

Know-Nothing Foreign Policy Brought to You By Twitter (and it's as dangerous as it sounds)!

I listened to a few moments of President Trump's (those are two words I have yet to say out loud together) announcement last night that he had authorized the bombing of air bases in Syria. It's the first time I've watched him since he was elected. I had to turn it off after less than a minute because it is so disheartening to realize that he is in charge of our nation's military and our foreign policy decisions. The man who has stated he doesn't need daily intelligence briefings because he's "like, a smart person" now gets to decide who we bomb (because he changed his previous position that Congress actually should be consulted about such things).

I'm not going to argue here whether or not the bombings were an appropriate response to the horrific use of sarin in a chemical attack against the Syrian people, including many children. Bashar al-Assad is a nasty individual and his atrocities are long and reprehensible. Many world leaders as well as politicians on both sides of the aisle in our country have spoken out with support for Trump's decision. I know Hillary Clinton would have bombed those same airbases if she was sitting in the Oval Office. But I just don't trust the man who is making the decisions for our country and his ability to navigate the consequences moving forward.

Back in September 2013, Trump had a very different opinion on whether or not we should respond to the horror in Syria with military action (and side note - I think that Syria is one of President Obama's greatest policy failures, with the "line in the sand" that somehow just disappeared):

Now, I understand that people's positions on issues can change over time. For example, we saw both President Obama and Secretary Clinton's stance on gay marriage shift over the course of a decade. I hope we all are open to hearing other perspectives and perhaps adjusting our own opinions when we receive new information or better understand a persuasive argument. But our current president has changed the position he took just one week ago!

Our ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said at the end of March that it no longer would be a priority of the United States to remove Assad from power. Our Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared that the fate of Assad should be left to the Syrian people. This redirect seems to show the administration's desire to keeps our country's hands out of the Syrian conflict and "worry about our own," which was a popular campaign point. Go back a few more months, and Trump asserted during the second presidential debate that we should work with Russia and Syria (aka Putin and Assad) to defeat ISIS (which ran counter to the approach that his then-running mate Pence put forth in his own debate, because I guess they don't talk to each other).

So, what happened? From what I understand, he saw the video of the chemical weapon victims and was shocked, SHOCKED by what had taken place. He said it was horrible. You know what? I think it was horrible as well. My heart aches for the people of Syria, for the children who are no different than my own and who deserve the security that my family enjoys. But sadly, I wasn't shocked. Not really at all. It's par for the course for the murderous regime under which the Syrian people suffer. That is, when they aren't being slaughtered by ISIS or the Russians. (But please, let's keep them far away from our shores, right? I challenge you to look in the eyes of the man who lost his wife and twin babies in the gas attack this week and tell him you would have been opposed to letting his family into our country to escape their gruesome fate. #MAGA)

If our president actually read his intelligence briefings, maybe he wouldn't have been so surprised.

Our leaders should be disturbed by videos of children suffocating to death. On that point, the president and I agree. But Trump is a man who admits he does not read, who gets his information about global affairs from morning talk shows, and who likely has a less nuanced understanding of geopolitics than my seven-year-old son. He feels one way on a policy matter when it fits what he needs and then does a complete reversal not based on logic or new information but because of emotion or hurt feelings (ex. he hated the Electoral College and thought we should march in the streets against it and then suddenly, on November 8 of last year, he thought it was awesome -- his Twitter history will back me up on this one).

And let's go back to those 2013 tweets for a moment. There WAS video evidence of the chemical attack in the Ghouta region of Syria that summer. I remember watching it on the news and crying. You can still find the link to the news stories right here, and the BBC will warn you that the images are disturbing. And it was AFTER the media shared images of the 2013 war crimes that Trump tweeted his opposition to getting involved. Here's another "Trump tweet," just two weeks after the chemical weapons were dropped on August 21, 2013:

The acts of Assad were war crimes in 2013 and they continue to be in 2017. Why didn't the visual evidence bother him the first time? Why did he have a completely different reaction to the exact same atrocity? I guess The Apprentice was filming four years ago and Trump didn't get a chance to see the tiny victims in 2013. Surely then he would have refrained from GOING ALL CAPS and claiming that our president would be "FOOLISH" to attack Syria . . . for the very same reasons and with the same evidence that Trump is attacking that country now.

It's just all so troubling because every move that Trump makes seems to be borne out of a rash and emotional reaction, like when my child falls on the floor in anguish as I tell him he needs to brush his teeth. (Son, if you stop and think about it for a minute and read those cute cavity prevention briefings that the Tooth Fairy brought to your school, you would realize that brushing your teeth is good for you.) I do not see any foresight or long-term planning in the actions taken by the president, domestically or internationally.

Like this example, as a health care policy aside: "Hey, Freedom Caucus . . . even those you all are really conservative and some voters actually thought I might be . . . ha, ha, ha!! . . . you guys now suck because you don't like everything I do and I'm awesome so now I'm going to work with the Democrats and make sure you lose your next election."

Trump has no idea what he is doing and the consequences are "huuuger" than can be expressed.

With Russia and North Korea and terrorist groups like ISIS plaguing the security of our planet, we cannot afford a president who puts no thought into foreign policy and whose perspective suddenly can change based on a video that should have disgusted but not shocked any person with knowledge of the region. We now get to sit back and watch as he continues to make uninformed decisions about war and death as he goes. Whatever he fancies in that moment will do. Do you know what Trump's next steps are in Syria? You're not alone . . . neither does he.