Saturday, May 9, 2009

How to Keep our Children Safe

The following editorial was printed in our local paper today. I am including it, along with my reply below.

It was almost 10 o'clock last Wednesday night. I had sent my 5-year-old daughter to bed, with instructions to pick out a bedtime story. This particular night, I selfishly hoped she would doze off before I made it up the stairs. It had been a long day.

I got to work at 7ish, left at after 5, picked Kyla up from school soon after and prepped dinner, which I really hoped would be done before Bible class at 7. No such luck. So I put in a call to my sister in Hoover, Ala., to ask on what temperature I should leave the chicken, since it now was at least halfway cooked. She had more important things to discuss: My nieces, ages 13 and 11, at about 4 p.m. had come face-to-face with a child predator.

They and four friends were walking what would equate to a couple blocks to CVS Pharmacy. As they were leaving, a man was parked in a green Honda, near their apartment's playground. He asked if they wanted a ride; they declined. On the way home, most of the girls stopped to walk a friend to her apartment door; my oldest niece headed around the corner to her own apartment. The green Honda was still at the playground. The Hispanic man inside maneuvered the car in front of her and exposed himself. She screamed and ran; the other girls followed suit. After reporting the incident to the police, my sister found out at least one other incident had been reported with the same car and same description for the suspect. He had physically tried to abduct a girl — a high school freshman — just after the incident with my nieces.

I was appalled something like this would happen, in broad daylight. "I couldn't process it; I had to have them repeat it because I couldn't believe what they were saying," my sister, Givonne, said. After the shock wore off, she wanted find him, get his license plate number and get a good look at him. I could relate. I felt like driving to Alabama myself and hunting down the degenerate. But my nieces, I'm sure, were more traumatized than the two of us. "I'm OK," the 13-year-old said, not very convincingly. I tried to be encouraging; I'm pretty sure I failed miserably. What do you say? "I'm sorry you were confronted by a sick pervert, sweetheart."

I had to switch gears: Chicken. Bible class. We decided I would leave the chicken breasts in the oven on 200 degrees, while Kyla and I headed to Gregory Road Church of Christ. It was a good class, and, as usual, educational. But the thought of my niece being exposed to such a sicko plagued me.

News Monday a similar situation happened here in Columbus was enough to disturb me even more. Police still are investigating the case of a man who exposed himself to a child last Friday afternoon. The girl got off the school bus and saw a white male sitting in a blue 2003 Hyundai Accent with Alabama tags. The man told the child he had something he wanted to show her and beckoned her to the car. When she approached, he exposed himself to her. Columbus police have apprehended a suspect based on the car's license plate but have yet to verify whether or not he's the culprit.

I had berated my sister for letting my nieces walk, even in a large group, to the store alone. But this girl was getting off of a school bus, headed home. Kyla will start kindergarten in the fall, and I shudder to think of the possibility of something like this happening to her. My instincts say shield her from the ways of the world, quit my job and home school her even.

I won't. But there must be some median ground between hunkering down in a bomb shelter and being completely vulnerable to these kinds of deviants.

And, here is my response:

There is a middle ground.

First, as much as we might want to think that we can protect our children, the fact of the matter is that we cannot protect them from harm. Even further, in some cases, we shouldn't. What would happen if we kept our children from learning to walk because they might fall down and hurt themselves? Can we agree that it wouldn't be a good idea? Yes, they will fall down and get hurt, but the benefits of learning to walk usually outweigh the damage that might be done in a fall.

So, what do we do for our children? We don't overprotect, we teach. We teach our children that if you fall, you get back up. We teach them that they don't go anywhere with a stranger. We teach them to run away from situations that feel dangerous or uncomfortable to them. There are programs out that do a great job of teaching our children how to manage their own safety, if you want some help with what works and is appropriate.

What we don't do is lock our children up in our houses. To deprive them of the experiences that give them wisdom about the world and teach them to take care of themselves is to hinder them, not to mention how much harder it will be to keep them from being overweight if we never let them outside. At 13 and 11, your nieces are old enough to walk to the store alone. And, I would bet that after the shock of this incident has worn off, they will be even more aware of uncomfortable situations and more likely to avoid them altogether.

I don't mean to diminish the significance of being flashed, but they apparently handled it correctly. They walked away and told their mothers. The young woman in Columbus also told authorities. It's likely the perpetrators will be apprehended before they move past flashing into more dangerous attacks.

I think that's the best we can do. There's no way to prevent creeps from being creeps and we can't spend our lives hiding in fear, but if we teach our children to run away, give the authorities a good description and then we catch them, we have done the best we can. And, we will end up with strong, resilient children who walk with confidence.

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