If there is any bright side at all to the Penn State fiasco rolled in a debacle wrapped inside a grieving layer of haunting sadness, it is that parents are talking about the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and, hopefully, talking with their children about ways to prevent it.
But … how?
I admit I get a little nervous talking about “stranger danger” with my daughter, not because I’m afraid of thinking about it or actually talking about it. Rather, I’m afraid of freaking her out, of making her think the world is out to get her, grab her, touch her. When really that’s not the case at all.
When I was growing up, I used to hang out in the garages of neighborhood bachelors, handing them tools as they worked on cars or going inside their houses to learn how to cook freshly caught crawdads. I used to talk for hours on end with one neighborhood bachelor, the two of us outside in his driveway on calm summer evenings. One time I got into the car of a strange man who had driven into our neighborhood, got lost and needed directions. He said he’d give me a dollar for help and five minutes later, he dropped me at home. I may not have been the brightest boy in the world — and maybe I just got lucky; you’d think that after reading the horrible details of this Penn State controversy — but if anything, all these memories have given me a perspective I’d like my daughter to have as well: People are generally nice, it’s OK to help others, not everyone is out to hurt you.
And yet, at the same time, it’s … possible. And it’s best to be prepared.
I talked to Kim Estes of Savvy Parents Safe Kids, a national safety program she founded to help parents more easily talk with their kids about these issues, and she recommended some easy ways to start a conversation. For starters, she wants to get rid of the term “stranger danger” in favor of “tricky person” because by and large, it’s not strangers who are committing these horrible crimes. It’s people kids know.
I was particularly concerned with how to have conversations without freaking the holy jebus out of my kid, and Estes had some good advice I wanted to share:
Q. In light of the Penn State scandal, I was curious about the risk for kids: Just how prevalent in this kind of thing?
A. HUGE. A child’s chance of being abducted by a stranger: about 1 in a million. Your child’s chance of being sexually exploited before they turn 18? About 1 in 5. (Editor’s note: That sounded incredibly high, so I checked this out with the National Center for Missing and Exploited children and it matches up: 1 in 5 for girls, 1 in 10 for boys.)
Q. How can parents prevent this from happening to their children, while at the same time not scaring their children?
A. Nobody is crime proof but we can greatly reduce our child’s risks by talking openly about safety. Making safety a NORMAL part of your conversation. Conversations without scare tactics have a much stronger and lasting impact on kids than talks with scare tactics or lectures. Kids who are empowered with knowledge are not scarred. They are smart.
Q. When I was a boy, our neighborhood kids used to pal around with the odd bachelor on the street, sometimes just hanging out in a garage and sometimes going fishing. Nothing ever happened. How can you teach kids to enjoy what seems to be a Big Brother type relationship while at the same time be watchful for danger.
A. Teach children about healthy physical boundaries. Not all adults are out to get our kids. We just need to be smart about when someone crosses that line and what that line is.
Q. What is the best thing you can do for your kid if you think something is happening?
A. Be calm. Trust your gut. Stay involved. Enlist the help of a professional (don’t go all CSI on your kids). Don’t rely on your kids to bring the topic up. Don’t be confrontational with the discussion but ask small questions.
Q. Do you have any tips for what to say during any type of prevention talk? I mean actual ways to break the ice and start a discussion that can be ongoing.
A. Don’t make statements such as “I would kill anyone who ever hurt my kids.” Instead ask open ended questions such as “has anyone ever given you the uh-oh feeling?” “You know that I listen and believe you if you were scared or hurt?” “You would never be in trouble if you came to talk to me about something that was scaring you or if someone was hurting you.”