I am neurotic about predators. When my children started preschool and when they go to out for activities to the park or for classes, I'm constantly on the look out for people who may not be "safe" or are "over friendly". This is not just a fear thanks to the vivid, disturbing news we are exposed on a daily basis. It stems from memories.
At the age of 11 living in Madhya Pradesh (India), I opened the door to the postman and he asked for a glass of water. When I got it for him, handing it through the grill(thankfully) at the door, he caught my hand and held it to his crotch of his pants, then kissed it and smiled. Even at that young age, I knew that was wrong and ran to my mom to tell her. He was put in jail for a day before his wife came to plead for his life and he was released.
When I was 14 and used to walk home from school in Kuwait (Kuwait) with my mom a man used to often follow us all the way home in his car.
At the age of 17, I was riding in bus and a man sat next to me Mumbai (India). He kept touching me and touching me and I froze. I got off at my stop, cried my way home.
When I was 20 and travelling with my mother in the bus to Goa (India), a hand crept out from behind and started rubbing my hair. Needless to say, my mother chewed the guy's head off in front of everyone.
These are just four of the many experiences I've had personally. I don't say this to scare you. Of course, it was scary and still leaves me feeling icky. These events taught me at an early age, that there are many deranged people out there. While these are some of my worst memories, I think somewhere it made me hyper aware and at the same time stronger, knowing it's not to be taken seriously. Maybe I got desensitized to it all (not a good thing). In India and Kuwait, there is an unsaid acceptance and allowance of such behavior. That is of course food for another discussion.
But this is why I'm a strong advocate that the conversation begin early so that children be able to recognize such behavior, understanding that sometimes even people you know are capable of horrible acts. Mind you these things happened while my parents were close. It is not just the act but the reaction that carries significance.
Last year, an acquaintance was at Walmart with her kids. She was browsing the aisles, the kids in the cart when a man caught her 7 year old child's attention. He unzipped his pants and gestured her to keep silent. The child got horrifically rattled and told her mother as soon as she could get out of the shock but the man was long gone by the time the authorities were informed.
My son is five year old but I have been having conversations with him about personal safety since he was 4. Specially because he has always been an extremely friendly child who loves to make "friends". Now, so is my two year old daughter. And I worry about their friendliness making them easy prey. On the other hand, I never want to them to lose their happy demeanor. To be too scared to say Hi to strangers. We need people who are friendly to make the world a warm place to live. Who aren't scared to be the first one to break the proverbial ice. So how do we do it
The below conversations we have at regular intervals in my household because for children repetition is very essential. Every child is different. You will find it useful to use the below as baseline to start a dialogue essential for proactive thinking. To start talking about this disturbing topic is the first step.
No Secrets Within Family
I believe this is the most important thing kids need to remember, in their early years specially. Of course there will be a time when their life is their own but when they are young they are to know that while they don't have to tell their parents every single thing, it is wrong if someone, specially an adult tells them to keep a secret. My parents have always have open dialogue. There absolutely nothing I feel uncomfortable talking to them about. This I think is what helped me just go and tell my mom, " The postman took my hand and put it on his pants. " immediately after it happened. One should never feel fear in telling their parents anything.
I always say that no topic should be barred from discussing with kids, specially when they see something on TV (adults kissing) or hear something that may possibly confuse them about issues. Listening and letting them ask questions, no matter how uncomfortable that are answered as you may see fit is a great way to make sure kids trust parents.
You body is off limits
No one and I cannot emphasis this enough, No One should touch them inside their shirt or skirt/pants. Or kiss their lips. With some people being extra cuddly, it is okay that kids understand that saying no if they feel uncomfortable is just respecting their body. This is one of the reasons why I too personally always ask children for hugs. They can always be taught to show their respect and love in other ways. It means a lot more when it comes from them than mushing them anyway.
Permission is Must
We all tell our kids they should ask before going anywhere but many a times we forget to tell them not to walk off with a friend to an unknown place. They should always play where you can see them and they can see you. They should understand walking off into the horizon behind a balloon or ice cream cart is Not okay. Going to a secr exciting place with a friend or some adult they know is not okay. They should always ask for permission from the person in charge before going anywhere.
In the beginning, when I started this conversation my son asked me, " Who is a stranger? " And then we went on to discuss who all are considered family, friends and people we just meet once in a few months or a year. It is important that kids understand the definition of a family's boundaries and relationships.
No Helping Strangers
It's important to be nice. Say hi to strangers. Smile at them but remember to explain to your child that they are too young to actually help an adult. Many children feel very grown up in being able to do something an adult asks them to do. They are in a constant hurry to prove themselves or please others. So if an adult who is a stranger says," Can you help me with ... " they are to respond with, " Sure. Let me go ask my parents/teacher first. "
There is Enough at Home
Kids are greedy by default. It's not their fault. They are drawn to that extra piece of candy or toy or whatever is their favorite thing. And many times we parents exploit this honest response by making lot of activities incentive based. But at the same time every child needs to know that their parents can provide everything for them. They do Not need to ask or take anything that any other person offers them in return for something.
Shout, Run away & Assault
Like honesty is the best policy. I believe running away is the best policy in any dangerous situation. Children need to know that when they feel uncomfortable, their first response should be to shout out and run away. And we often tell children hitting is not okay. They need to understand that if someone does try to or successfully grabs them then nothing is off limits. Nothing! You are allowed to hit, punch, bite, scratch and most importantly scream. We even practice the volume level at home.
Read to Get Talking
Fear is not the solution to anything. The world is scary. The only way we can live is being constantly cautious. As adults we now are naturally so but we need to enable our children to do the same and know what to do in any given situation.
Have you already had this conversation with your child? What age did you start? Are there any other things you would make sure they know? Let me know in the comments below if you have had similar experiences and how that changed your conversation with your children. Lets try to keep our children aware and safe!
Above article has been previously published on the author’s website Silver Linings.