So, I'm watching the Olympics with my daughters. And we're talking about how strong the women on the screen are, how brave the 15-year-old girl is as she twists and turns at 35 miles per hour off the high diving platform and into the water.
"Mom, I want to do that. But she should be wearing a life-jacket. How can she swim without a life-jacket?"
"Well, she practiced and practiced. And she learned how to hold air in her lungs and use her hands and feet, just like you do when you're wearing your life-jacket."
"But that's far to jump. She shouldn't go by herself."
I want to throw caution to the wind and tell my 5-year-old little girl that someday she'll be able to go places by herself, too. That she'll be jumping without a life jacket, and that I will hold my breath until she comes back up from under the water. But, truth be told, I am grateful for being the mother of a cautious child some days. Apparently, it's a scary world out there.
There was recently a report of an attempted abduction just across the bridge in Scotia. A 10-year-old girl told her mother and police about an older man in a rusted, light-green, 4-door sedan who had tried to lure her into the car with candy.
But she made it up. The girl later admitted to Scotia police that she wanted to get attention from her parents. There is a new baby at her home.
There was about a week between that first report and the news that it was false. And despite the statistics that very few kids -- only about a hundred, out of tens of thousands of reports -- are taken in this sort of stereotypical situation, I had a day or two when my girls only played in the back yard.
These sorts of stories generate a lot of fear -- they're our worst nightmare. And we'd like to think that the world wasn't always like this, that there were times that qualify as 'back in the day' when things like creeps in light green sedans didn't threaten the way we look at the world. But this just doesn't hold up. There have always been creeps in rusted, light green 4 door sedans.
My mother shared a story from her childhood, of a 10-year-old little boy found hung in the woods behind her church, two blocks away from her home. My grandmother always told her daughters not to go in the woods after that and to stay together. The murderer didn't confess until a few years ago.
My father talked about how they shared 'stranger-danger' information with us kids growing up. He said I was so scared that I stopped talking to anyone at all out in public, could talk about nothing else at home and began having nightmares. He reminded me of our family safeword, in case he or mom sent someone else to pick us up from school: swimming pool.
Now, as the parent of two little girls, I'm bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle that wants to share with me pictures of smiling, beautiful, overwhelmingly white, missing little girls and boys. They flash through my living room and break my heart. I am haunted by the statistics: 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before age 18, in most cases by someone they trust.
I understand the modus operandi of creeps peddling candy and lost puppies. I have a decent idea of how to train my kids against that scenario. (Tell them that grownups ask grownups for help. Yell. Run. Find a grownup you trust.) But, how do I prepare myself to deal with the fear that the people most likely to hurt them are those whom they trust?
I can't keep my daughters locked down. We can't live our lives in fear of what might happen next. It's not good for them. It's not good for me. The boogeyman in the dark, under the bed, wins.
What I can do is instill in my daughters the tools of confidence and trust. Their bodies are THEIRS and their feelings are THEIRS. I am safe. Their daddy is safe. We will hear them and we will listen. Teaching them to trust their instincts, to run, to yell, to verbalize when something doesn't feel safe -- it's all part of my job as a parent. It is a vital part of teaching my daughters to live in the world.
I'm trying to remember that every time my 5 year old jumps in the pool. She's facing her fears and I'm facing mine. For now, she'll wear the life jacket and we'll work together until she's ready to take it off. My job in the meantime is to build her confidence and to keep her safe until she's ready to jump in all on her own.
I'll teach her to respond to particular situations instead of particular types of people. Strangers are not scary. People that ask you to do things that feel scary are.
Because of this most recent story, we'll have a refresher conversation. There is no reason, statistically or otherwise, for her to be fearful. That's my job and my burden as her parent.
I'll keep an updated, recent picture of her. She'll learn her full names, address and telephone number. She'll learn my full name, too.
I'll use correct, scientific language for all body parts and make sure she understands the "swim suit rule" -- the only people who get to touch you where your swimsuit covers you are Mom, Dad or a doctor. I'll do my best to talk openly about bodies and what they do. I will attempt to respond without shame to that umpteenth question in the grocery checkout line. I will pray that the cashier has a 5 year old at home, too.
I'll set boundaries in our neighborhood -- you can go as far as this house and this house. If you want to go inside a house, you need to check with me first. Do not go near a car without checking with me first. Remember: grownups ask grownups for help -- not kids.
I'll get to know my neighbors and make sure my neighbors get to know me and my kids. We'll work as a community to keep an eye and an ear on our neighborhood.
I will let my girl play outside on her own. I'll allow her to be independent and make her own mistakes in a safe, structured space. I'll encourage her to climb monkey bars up to the highest rung and go down the tallest slides. I'll praise her for being brave and for making good choices.
I will hug her. Lots. I'll remember that positive touch can serve as a guidepost for how relationships are supposed to feel and as a warning for when touches 'don't feel right.'
I'll help her to identify grownups that she trusts and feel safe in different places in her life. We'll talk about what trust feels like.
In my gut, I'll acknowledge to myself that I will not always be there to protect her or to help her make safe choices. Making safe choices for her when she is small empowers her to make safe choices for herself when she is older.
When she is 10 years old, she will walk to school with the other kids in our neighborhood. She will ride her bike to Stewart's for ice cream and over to a friend's house to play. She will call me when she gets there.
When she is 10 years old and there is a report of an immediate threat, I'll offer to give her a ride or will insist she go with friends. I don't know if I'll tell her what has happened. It does her no good to live in terror, but it does much good to cultivate awareness.
I'll watch these Olympics go on with all these strong women and wish that one of the champions (or maybe just the women's soccer team) would fly into town with a superhero cape and wallop all of the creeps in light green, rusted, 4 door sedans.
Ah, well. If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets. In the meanwhile, we'll take our daughters out to the playground in Collins Park. The world might be a scary place, but we've got some living to do.
Leah writes at Noshing Confessions.
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