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?

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