Vail Daily column: Lessons and responses
My children returned from playing outside and rushed into my office to proudly display their largesse — pockets brimming with rainbow-colored candy. When I asked where it had come from, they casually explained that a lady tossed it towards them as she drove past in her car and they picked it up off the ground.
At that moment, I wanted to fall to my knees and keen to the gods at where I had gone wrong as a parent. Instead I screeched at them, “You did what?!” Before they could answer, I bellowed, “Kid 101, do not take candy from a stranger and never eat anything that has been on the ground.” I displayed parental indignation, but what I really felt was fear. It was as if the forces of evil had sent a warning shot across the bow. The message seemed to be, the kids were safe, this time.
I commenced a scared-straight crusade to convince my children that all adults they do not know are potentially dangerous. Clearly, I had been remiss in installing sufficient stranger danger in them. I told them the candy might be tainted and could make them sick if they ate it. Then I told them that bad guys use candy, kittens and puppies to lure kids into cars and to kidnap them. I remind them of the scene in “Pinocchio” where the bad guys tempt little boys to be naughty and then turn them into donkeys to work in the salt mines. I tell them the bad guys might turn them into donkeys, or worse. They nod solemnly. They have experienced my crazy before. They do not protest too much when I make them throw away the candy. I substitute it with something else from our pantry.
I tell them these things even though I know instances of candy tampering are rare in the extreme. I also know that abductions by strangers are also the exception. According to FBI statistics, the vast majority of child abductions are by a relative or someone known to the child. But I tell them these things anyway, just in case they encounter the exception to the rule and win the bad lottery — that unlikely situation that is statistically akin to being struck by lightning or swarmed by killer bees — because as a parent, that is my job.
However, in the process of doing my parenting duty, am I doing society a disservice? Am I, and parents like me, perpetuating a suspicion of others that is later fertile ground for bigotry? Can caution regarding strangers metastasize into suspicion of those who dress differently or speak another language or observe a different religion?
If it keeps them safe, isn’t that a fair price to pay? Except, it may not keep them safe. It might blind them, and me, to the danger posed from those they already know. If they think bad guys lurk in dark alleys, they might miss the coach, teacher, priest or den mother with bad intentions.
Case in point, a teacher from my children’s school called to inform me that an older boy attempted to have a sexual conversation with my daughter, who was 8 years old at the time. I put my freak-out on hold and calmly asked her about it. She confirmed that he had tried, but she shut it down, telling him he was making her uncomfortable and the subject matter was inappropriate. Seriously, she used those words. She further informed me that he had asked her to keep the incident a secret so that is why she had not told me. A request for secrecy, I told her, was a sure sign someone was up to no good. From now on, I asked her to come to me when someone asks her to keep something a secret. I figure this will buy me a few more years until she starts high school.
In the space of a few months, my daughter took candy from a stranger but then had the presence of mind to shut down an older, bigger kid’s attempt to talk about sex. Sometimes kids’ abandonment of common sense drives you crazy, and sometimes their discernment blows you away. I will never know on any given day how my kids’ brains are firing and what the world will throw at them. All I can give them is the sum total of my years of experience, most learned the hard way, and hope they are able to summon the right response at the right moment. Like a seat belt or a helmet, it is not perfect protection, but it is something. If evil tries to take another shot at my kids, I want to make it a tough one.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.