It is probably the worst fear of any parent – that their child might be kidnapped or molested. It’s the stuff of our nightmares and the kind of movies you can never watch again once you’ve had your own kids. The whole idea sends such waves of terror running through us that we inadvertently teach our kids the very thing that is likely to make them a victim – fear itself.
You see, pedophiles are predators, and predators look for the weakest link. Their eyes are peeled for the timid child – the one who is afraid and nervous and wary: The child who acts like prey. They don’t want to get involved with a child who will voice their opinion or dislike strongly, they don’t want to hassle with a child who can’t be manipulated, the definitely aren’t going to try to prime a fighter.
When we teach children stranger danger we are teaching them to act like victims. I suggest that we rather empower our children with life skills that are not appealing to predators.
Instead of filling our children with fear, let us rather teach them to:
1. Carry themselves with confidence: How does your child feel about him/herself? We teach confidence by allowing children to do things for themselves, by giving them independence, by describing their achievements without praising them, by acknowledging their struggles without jumping in to do things for them, by allowing children to make choices. Ensure that your child gets their daily dose of love and attention – hugs, kisses, kind words, time together. A child whose needs are not being met is much more vulnerable.
2. Have body integrity: Children need to know that their body is theirs and nobody gets to do anything to it without their consent. As parents we need to step back sometimes and see how often we give them the opposite message – insisting on washing them, brushing their hair, forcibly dressing them, insisting that they hug/kiss relatives. We have to start respecting our child’s right to refuse these things. It’s a hard pill to swallow as a parent and it isn’t always easy to trust that they will not grow up filthy with a permanent bird’s nest and no manners. Body integrity has to start at home and if we don’t respect this we are already priming them for other people disrespecting their bodies.
3. Trust their instincts: Our brains receive so much more information on an unconscious level than we ever become aware of consciously. We’ve all had those moments when we feel that something is not right and it turns out to be so. We can’t explain how we knew, we just did. That is the power of responding to subtle cues from the unconscious mind. We need to teach our children to tune into this wisdom and to trust it. We do this by listening to them when they say they don’t feel like doing something, or respecting them when they don’t want to be around a particular person, or even allowing them choice in what they eat (and knowing that their inner wisdom knows better than you what is good for them on this particular day).
4. Voice their opinion: Children need to know that “no” means “no” and the only way to learn this is if we allow them to say it and respect them when they do. If you ask your child to share their toys or eat their dinner or give you a lick of their ice cream and they say “no” then no means no. Children need to know that their voice is as important and as relevant and as respected as any adult’s voice. They learn this by being given opportunities to talk, being included in family decisions, being really listened to when they have a problem or want to share something. It is very challenging raising a strong-willed child, but that trait that we dislike so much is the very trait that can save their lives one day.
5. Know what to do in an emergency: Rather than teaching stranger danger, focus on strategies for what to do in certain situations. For example, what do you do if you lose your mom in the shopping centre? My strategy with my kids was that they should find a woman with a baby or child and ask for help. What do you do if someone that you don’t know asks you to come and see their new puppies? First check with your mom if it is ok to go along. What do you do if someone touches your body without your permission? Tell an adult, scream for help etc. The best way to teach these skills is to play role playing games or even use puppets or toys to act out different scenarios. Let your kids come up with ideas for what they would do and then discuss these with them. We must also be careful in our daily lives with our kids that we don’t mistakenly give the impression that screaming and making a scene are never appropriate – sometimes they are essential and kids need to know that they can try this out.
6. Be able to defend themselves: I honestly believe that every child should have some martial arts or self-defense training in their lives. Knowing how to handle ourselves in difficult situations gives us the kind of confidence that is very off-putting to predators. It also gives children the added advantage of having the element of surprise in a dangerous situation. Hopefully your children will never need to use these skills, but if they ever do, then it is better to have some skills than none.
And then, of course, we need to calm our own fears so that our children are not picking up on our nervousness and belief that the world is essentially a bad place. Of course we need to be alert and awake as parents to potential dangers, but we also need to be realistic about our fears and practical in our approach. If you have your own trauma from your childhood that hasn’t been dealt with – get some help. It is not fear of strangers that will help our children to stay safe, but knowledge, confidence and self-respect.