I sat in my work's break room a few days ago. Newspapers were spread across both tables, each one had photos of Tori Stafford plastered across the front page. I commented how horrible it was that Tori's mother was being lambasted for allowing her 8 year old daughter to walk alone from school, the response I got was a shrug and "that's what society's like these days, kids don't walk home alone".
That angers me. We live in a society where obesity rates for children rise yearly. Local parks (in some neighbourhoods) are empty while the children play in daycare or sit inside playing video games. I used to go on a Canadian parenting forum and remember this discussion coming up on one of the boards. Many parents expressed fear of letting their children out of eyesight, gingerly allowing them to walk one or two houses down to play with friends. One mother admitted her twelve year old was not allowed to walk across the street to the neighbourhood store alone despite the fact the store was clearly visible from their kitchen window and the street was quiet.
What are we teaching our children? The world is a dangerous and scary place with criminals waiting on every corner to hurt and kill us. They're not capable of making responsible decisions without their parents right there to supervise. I sometimes wonder how that mother of a 12 year old is managing her child's entry into high school and, likely soon, admission to college or university. Will she insist on holding her daughter's hand right through the admission, like so many parents are doing these days?
Stranger abduction and murder is terrifying but we need to remember that out of all the children who are sexually assaulted and/or murdered, the vast majority happened at the hands of people they knew and trusted (usually relatives). The reason stranger abduction is so memorable is because it's rare.
As I'm writing this, my 14 year old son is outside rollerblading on his own. His only rules are to be careful while crossing the road and to be back before dark. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. I worry every time he heads out on his own. But that worry is mine. I need to own it. And I think that's the biggest issue. We, as parents, are not owning our fear. Instead we're passing it on to our children.
Instead of clinging to our children, we need to give them the tools they need to thrive and let them go. There are numerous articles and books out there on teaching kids about strangers and dangerous situations. I freely admit I have not read most of them.
I remember smiling at a child and saying "hi" when I was a teenager, only to have that child look fearful and back away. My Mom commented it was probably because I was a stranger and the child was likely taught to be scared of strangers. At that point I realized how idiotic that idea was. Almost everyone in this world is a stranger to most of us, that doesn't make most of them scary or dangerous.
A friend of mine called me up when our children were young. She'd just watched a video on child abductions and it showed how easy it was to lure a child away. Then she asked her son what he'd do if someone said they had Pokemon cards in their car. He replied he'd go with them to get the cards. That was when I started talking with my kids. No adults ever keep cards in their car to give kids. No adults drive around with puppies or kittens in their back seat. Adults don't ask kids for help, they ask other adults for help. They might ask if you've seen a kitten or puppy but they're not going to ask you to look for one. And the biggest one, you never go anywhere without telling Mommy. It doesn't matter who shows up, you come and tell me first.
We talked and I listened. We covered what happens if someone gets lost in a store or a mall. It took one instance of my son thinking a custodian was a police officer to convince me not to tell them to go to a police officer. Instead I taught what a police officer suggested, to go into a store "glue" their hand to the front desk and tell the staff member they were lost. And not to "un-glue" their hand until I showed up or a police officer arrived. If they got lost away from a store, go to someone with kids. And above all else, to trust their instincts.
My son talks to everyone. We went out shopping yesterday in a neighbouring town and two separate people waved to him out of car windows during our 5 minute wait for the bus. We're constantly running into people who know him by name... people I've never met. If I kept him sitting in front of the Wii all day, he wouldn't have those experiences.
Nothing will ever bring back the lives of the handful of children who have died at the hands of strangers. Nothing will ever ease the pain of their families. But raising a generation of children who have never walked to the corner store on their own or talked to an adult neighbour without supervision is not the answer.