Protecting our Children and Finding the Gift
One with Heart Program Coordinator
The moment our child is born we begin creating safety. An environment free of sharp objects, electric outlets, hazardous staircases. An environment where our child is surrounded by thoughtful, loving, adults and children. The vigilance of parenting a newborn is exhausting, but the reward is that we feel a pretty solid sense of control over risk. As our child grows up, minimizing risk becomes complicated. We must strike a balance between vigilance and letting go. How do we assess and avoid risk and still allow opportunities for our children to become independent? Gavin De Becker’s book, Protecting the Gift, provides insightful, practical answers to this question. [i]
Parents and guardians are 100 percent responsible for the safety of their children for many years. This responsibility can feel overwhelming, but the good news is we are genetically wired to do the job. That wiring is in what De Becker calls the ‘wild brain’. The wild brain is different from the logical brain. The wild brain is our intuition, gut feeling, that ability we all have to take in signals of danger before we logically conclude that something is wrong. Logic takes time, it is slow. Intuition is immediate and fast. Intuition is the nagging feeling that you aren’t comfortable with your daughter spending the night at a particular friend’s house. Logic is the process of thinking it through and recounting the many ways mom’s new boyfriend has been paying extra attention to your daughter. If we trust our intuition, logic can usually follow along and fill in the missing pieces.
Intuition is not only the fastest source of information; when it comes to detecting danger it is the most reliable. De Becker begins his book telling us “we must listen to internal warnings while they are still whispers. The voice that knows how to protect your children may not always be the loudest, but it is the wisest.” When we are reluctant to trust our intuition, our logical brain may actually be a source of misinformation that interferes with our internal warning system. Two of the most common interferences are denial and worry.
Denial is refusal to face reality about who predatory offenders are and what they are capable of. We believe that strangers are the greatest source of danger. In fact, 90 percent of children are molested by someone they know. We think we have chosen a safe neighborhood to raise our children. In fact, the Dept. of Justice estimates that on average there is one child molester per square mile. We assume predators display signs of sexual deviance that make them easy for us and law enforcement to recognize. In fact, sex offenders are often charming masters of deceit who offend an average of 30 – 60 times before they are ever arrested. If we refuse to look at who the threat is, the loud voice of denial can talk us right out of following up on the information our intuition gives us.
While worry seems to come with the territory of parenting, there are good reasons to keep it in check. De Becker describes worry as fear we manufacture. It is a state of anxiety about things we imagine could happen as opposed to the internal alarm our intuition sets off when danger actually is happening. If danger is imminent, our intuition triggers a primal fear response that is nature’s way of protecting us. It spurs us to action. When we live in a state of manufactured fear, it is much harder for the signal to get through.
Also, worry is often misdirected and serves as a distraction from facing uncomfortable situations closer to home. It is easier to worry about a possible stranger abduction, which is extremely rare, than to do the hard work of fully investigating the day care provider. It is less awkward to talk about stranger danger at the PTA meeting than to bring up your concern about the math teacher taking a special interest in vulnerable kids. But while you are busy looking for bad guys in the bushes, the next door neighbor may gradually be charming his way into a position where he can abuse your child.
The antidotes for denial and worry are information and confidence. A lot of accurate information is available about predatory behavior and the real risks to children. While it may not be pleasant reading, accurate information makes you much less vulnerable to the common tactics employed by offenders. I also recommend that parents invest in self-defense training for themselves. A good self-defense class dispels myths about sexual assault and trains strategies to respond assertively to a potential threat. Even a few hours of training will help you develop the skills and the confidence to recognize risk, assess options, and take action even in situations that feel socially awkward.
Teaching children to protect themselves begins at home. Confident, assertive, informed adults are more likely to raise confident, assertive, informed kids. These are the qualities that make kids and adults less likely to be targeted by predatory offenders. As kids mature they gradually take on more responsibility for their own safety. By the time they reach adolescence they have the independence to make decisions that can impact the rest of their lives, but they still need our support and guidance. Whether or not they will turn to us for support and guidance depends a lot on how we have handled challenges along the way. If denial and worry have informed our parenting our teenage children may not feel we can support them with straight forward information and they may choose not to share their problems with us because they don’t want to shock or worry us.
A parent’s most important job is to provide a safe haven for our children; a place where they know they are loved and know we are strong enough to handle anything. And we really are strong enough. The moment our baby is born we experience a power within ourselves we may have never experienced before. This awakening connects us with the internal strength to face our own troubles and fears and tackle reality head-on. From that first day forward it is our job to do exactly that.
No matter how well we do our job, we can never completely control how things turn out. To our children we give everything and are guaranteed nothing. If we choose to accept this unreasonable deal with nature, we each receive a hidden gift; the strength and wisdom to be a better person than we ever thought possible.
[i] De Becker, Gavin. Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). New York, New York: Dell Publishing: 1999.
This book is a comprehensive, easy to read, straight forward look at offender behavior and the tools we have to keep our children safe. It is a guide to It assessing and recognizing risk and it provides practical information about: choosing a baby sitter, nanny, day care center, and pediatrician; recognizing and addressing problems at school; parenting teenagers; and more.