For us, the story is over. The neighbor has been sentenced. While he still lives behind us, I expect that his tenure in the neighborhood is probably drawing to a close. It’s certainly clear that he is not going to have any more interaction with my children, which is fine with me.
But we are the product of our experiences. And this experience makes me suspicious. Where are my children going? How are they spending their time? Who is home at that friend’s house they’re visiting? I’m much less a fan of sleepovers and play dates and letting my children out of my sight. But that’s not healthy for them or me. There’s no more risk to them now than there was three years ago before all this happened. But you can bet we’re paying attention. No, you’re not going to ride in coach’s car unless there are others in the car too. You will take your cell phone with you, and you’ll call if anything happens that makes you feel threatened or uncomfortable. You’re not running or biking alone. You will always let us know where you are and what you’re doing.
We will drive you crazy, my children, with our involvement in your lives. We want to know your friends. We want to know their parents. Where do they live? What do they do? We’re going to judge people by how they treat one another, and by the decisions they make and the actions and attitudes they demonstrate. We’re probably not going to force you to disassociate with people, but we will help you make your own decisions about the kinds of people you choose to spend your time with.
We’re going to continue to monitor your online activity. We do not want to know everything you’re thinking and doing and saying. But we do want to know if you’re putting yourself in danger. Most of all, we want to be able to follow up on other warning signs. We are not spies. We will respect your privacy, unless you give us a reason not to. But know that we’re still the parents, and we need the tools to help you through this.
We’re going to pay attention to the adults you spend time with, and we’re going to be more suspicious of them than we were in the past. We will question the person who directs children’s theater productions but doesn’t seem to have any interest in adult casts. We will wonder about the coach who is passionate about girls’ basketball or soccer or track, but doesn’t seem to care about those sports for boys. We will be suspicious of the person who gives private music lessons but doesn’t seem to be interested in performing on her instrument of choice or teaching adults. We’re not going to automatically judge these people as harmful, but we’re going to give them additional scrutiny.
In the wild, the most dangerous place to be is between a mother and her children. If you find yourself between a mother bear and her cub, you’re in trouble. In Kenya, we found ourselves too close to the baby elephant, and yet not quite far enough away from Mamma. She let us know, in no uncertain terms, that we were too close. Our driver was smart enough to get us out of there before she felt the need to protect her baby. We are going to be much more like that Mamma elephant because we now have experience with people threatening our babies.
But most of all, we’re going to err on the side of caution. I don’t need proof that there’s a serious threat. I only need a suspicion. On some level, instinct takes over. If it doesn’t feel right — if intuition is telling us that something is wrong — we’re going to act on it. So we’ll wear the badge of the overprotective parents if we have to. But we will protect our kids, and we’ll teach them to protect themselves.
And what can you do, faithful blog reader? You can pay attention to relationships between children and adults in your life. You can be aware of warning signs, like these:
Child predators may push social, emotional, and physical boundaries.
Child predators may try to arrange opportunities to be alone with children.
Child predators may use inappropriate innuendo when communicating with children.
Child predators may offer to babysit, take children on special outings, and buy gifts for children.
Child predators may show an inappropriate level of interest in or affection for a particular child or children.
Child predators may try to get children to communicate online with them, away from the watchful eyes of parents and other adults.
Child predators may share too much personal information with children.
Child predators may encourage children to lie to or mislead their parents.
Child predators may be interested in activities that allow them to be around children, even though they have little interest in analogous activities for adults.
Child predators may seem to relate better to children than adults.
Child predators may take an unusual interest in children, even if they have no children of their own.
You don’t have to have evidence that a person had ill-intent to remove your child from the situation. When it comes to your children, you’re the boss. You don’t have to accuse the adult of anything. Just indicate that you’re acting in the interest of child safety. If there’s an online component, contact the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for help. If you want more resources, check out this page from Safely Ever After and this article from Modern Mom.
Edit: I also really like this list of 8 Red Flags for Identifying Child Predators. It’s the list we originally used when we cut off the art lessons, but I couldn’t find it when I originally posted this article.
Finally, teach your children how to get out of uncomfortable situations. Give them tools to help them know when they’re in danger and how to get out. They know not to take candy from or get in cars with strangers. But what should they do when someone they know makes them feel uncomfortable? Who can they talk to? Hopefully, there’s an adult besides Mom and Dad that they can confide in.
I have a friend who established an elaborate phone code with her children. If they’re somewhere and want her to come get them immediately, they can call her. “Don’t forget to record my show,” they’ll say. That means “I’m feeling uncomfortable and want you to come get me.” Mom can make up an excuse, come up with an emergency, or just step in and get the child without raising any alarms. That’s not a bad system to put in place.
I wish we didn’t have to worry about these things. I wish we lived in a world where the idea of hurting children were so far beyond the realm of our wildest nightmares that it would never occur to anyone to actually do it. But we don’t live in that world. And until we do, we have to protect our kids.