This week as I packed up holiday decorations, I replayed my memories of Christmas morning when my children, 8 and 5, rushed into the living room full of excitement and expectation. My daughter oohed and ahhed over her new doll, complete with pup tent and sleeping bag. My son rushed to the miniature astronauts gathered around a tiny space shuttle and launching platform. In that moment, the world my children knew consisted only of magic and goodness, of expectations met and surpassed. Like many loving parents, I wish I could arrange more elements of my children’s lives, ensuring each day offered them joy and excitement and goodness.
But I can’t.
The best I can do is to love them, and to level with them: the same world that offers them so much goodness also contains danger. They will see it. They will experience it. And they need to be prepared for it.
I was near my daughter’s age, walking through my middle class neighborhood, when I noticed a car slow down as it passed me. I continued down the sidewalk, and within minutes the same car—a large Buick with rusting paint—pulled up to the curb two houses in front of me, waiting. The situation did not feel right. No one was getting out of the car. It was sitting there, idling, obviously waiting for me to walk beside it.
My mother had drilled me on situations like these, even though I was still in elementary school. And acting on her warnings and advice, I never broke my stride. I turned up the front walkway to the house directly next to me and walked purposefully toward the front door. Sure enough, the waiting car pulled away immediately. In fact, the driver was in so much haste that the balding tires squealed against the pavement. Once the car was gone from view, I left the front porch of the house and hurried home.
Was my mother wrong to tell me of the dangers of the world at such a young age? No. In fact, she may have saved my life.
As a member of the next generation of mothers who value their children’s wellbeing above all else, I have begun to teach my kids about the dragons that inhabit their usually wonderful childhood kingdom. And the lessons seem to be working. While my son and I were grocery shopping this week, he accepted a hard candy from an elderly gentleman, thanked him politely, and then handed the candy to me as soon as the man was out of sight. That man, a stranger, probably meant no harm. But my son, at age 5, knew from our “Stranger Danger” talks that the candy would go directly into a trash can. My daughter’s 3rd grade curriculum incorporates similar lessons to those I teach at home.
One day I will tell my kids my own experiences—how a friend I trusted tried to date rape me in high school (and how lucky I was to escape). How my stepmother was murdered later that same year. How there are huge groups of people who have faced similar evils. And the importance of the talks I now give to survivors of violent crime and those who work with them and for them.
Packing away our stockings and holiday garlands, I almost feel guilty for these thoughts, as if I am desecrating the wonder of Christmas and expectation of a brand new year. But here’s the overriding truth: just as my husband and I took great care on Christmas Eve to prepare our living room for our children’s joy, there are some who take similar care and pleasure in arranging pain, and worse, for others. These are not Grinches who will be touched by the singalong down in Whoville and subsequently allow more love into their hearts. No. These are the Anti Clauses of the world. They carry around a sack of heartbreak, trying to sneak it into the homes and lives of their would-be victims.
I suppose I could pretend that my kids will always be shielded from potential harm, but I am too aware of how that adds to the dangers of their world. Would I refuse to tell my kids that stoves get hot because I hoped so ardently they would never be burned? Of course not. They need to know about danger, and to be savvy about the ways it will present itself to them. Like my daughter’s new coat and my son’s snow boots waiting for them under the tree, these are the more practical gifts I give my children—gifts that will prepare them for the times they journey outside of the safety of our home.
For tips on teaching kids about personal safety, visit www.SafetyCops.com, www.MyChildSafety.net, or www.McGruff.org
***Angela Dove is a public speaker, award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Berkley/Penguin 2009). She welcomes feedback at www.AngelaDove.com.