Sunday, October 24, 2010

Listening to Fear

Last week, three people from different parts of my life forwarded me this email, just slightly before I read about the incident in the local newspapers:

Hopewell Township Police are investigating a possible attempted luring incident involving a 9 year old female in the Brandon Farms area. Around 4 PM the girl was playing in front of her home when two males in a newer green car with Pennsylvania plates stopped near her.

Reportedly the males offered her candy if she would get in the car.

She told them she was going to call the police and ran inside the house. The males are described as being white, in their 20s to 30s, clean shaven, with short brownish colored hair. The subjects fled the area. The incident was not reported to police until approximately 9:30 PM.

Residents should be alert and report any suspicious people or vehicles to police immediately.

And so the question of when to begin the discussion of strangers with my five year old was answered. How about today, right now, in the car, on the way home from school, as I drove past the street that leads to the development in which this incident took place.

What do you do if strangers ask you to come into their car? If they offer you candy? If they say I told them to come get you? If they call you by name and tell you they are giving everyone a ride?

Yell, “No!” Run into our house. Kick, scream, bite, and hurt them if they reach for you.

What is my phone number? What is our address? What is your last name? How do you spell it?

Ok. Considering most adults can't spell our name, that was not a fair question.

When we got home we role played. I was the bad guy, and my five year old got to yell “No!” My two year old thought the idea of screaming at her mother and earning praise for the act of defiance looked like so much fun she joined in.

It became a game and it made me sick.

"Why were we doing this?" My oldest daughter asked, finally.

"In case anyone ever tries trick you," was the term I landed on.

"Why would they try to?"

I’ve been deliberately simplistic when explaining more routine displays of delinquency.

Why do people smoke? Why do they eat Snickers bars for breakfast? Why do they stand on swings and throw sand at squirrels? Why do they get in the express lane when they have thirty-seven items? Why do they turn left from the right lane?

"Sometimes people do things they should not."

But, this?

Sometimes people have such demons they invade the peaceful existence of others and prey upon children.

I did not say that.

I went back to my standard, “sometimes people do things they should not,” putting poor grocery store etiquette on par with attempting a heinous felony.

I dodged complexity not so much to avoid a disturbing conversation or because I found myself at a loss for words. And, years from now, if my daughter wants to be a psychiatrist, or policy maker, or detective, or write crime novels, she can dig into the questions of why. But, for now, I have decided we’ll focus on our own motivation, which is to keep her safe.

After I was pick-pocketed on a cross town bus, a year after I had been mugged on a downtown subway, a thoughtful friend asked if I might have been projecting something that made me a target—or victim.

I do not know. But, I know that in the seconds before both incidents happened, I had two distinct thoughts run through my head: one, that something was fishy; and two, that I did not want to be judgmental: who was I to assume the worst of a total stranger?

I’ve since learned that what I ignored or tried to discount, was instinct and fear, based on split second observations. Gavin de Becker explains it in his bestselling book from a decade ago, The Gift of Fear, which famously introduces, “pre-incident indicators” called PINS, based on patterns observed before acts of violence: Forced Teaming, Charm and Niceness, Too Many Details, Typecasting, Loan Sharking, The Unsolicited Promise, Discounting the Word No.

So when the risk of violence is high, I'd put a great amount of faith in intuition. As I learned the hard way-- if a well dressed man walks into a subway car with his hand under his lapel as if he’s holding a gun, he probably is; and if three people on a bus send more hand signals than a third base coach, and then fall on you making you think they might be lifting your wallet, they probably have.

And, if two men in a green car offer you candy and you think they’re out of place---they most certainly are. It doesn’t matter why they are there, or if your mother taught you to be polite, or that there's the remote chance that they have some decent explanation for their presence, at that point, your only job is to listen to the voice inside you that tells you to run.

And, then run.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates there are 115 “stereotypical” kidnappings a year, the kind that involve : someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently. Put that in context of the 797,500 children (people under the age of 18) reported missing over a one year period. Of those, 203,900 were victims of family abductions, and 58,200, non-family abductions.

But, these days, the threat is not just from strange men sitting in parked cars. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children makes that clear in the other data they present: 1 in 7 youth (10-17 year olds) received sexual solicitation or approach via the Internet; and 4% received an aggressive, sexual solicitation, in which the solicitor asked to meet them somewhere; called them on the telephone, or sent them offline mail, money, or gifts.

The Center For Missing and Exploited Children has a page with resources for parents, including a check list for Halloween and links to videos and worksheets, including one, The Safe Side, created by John Walsh and Julie Clark, of Baby and Little Einstein fame.

But, as I will try to teach my daughter, you don’t have to be a genius to feel fear;  you just have to be smart enough to listen to it.


Tim Morrissey said...

This excellent post is another one of those great, personal-connection, eminently relatable topics, Sarah!

Anonymous said...

Also check out Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker, which is all about how to handle this stuff with kids.

Lunch Box Mom said...

Good to know about Protecting the Gift-thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing post...and very thought provoking. In my self defense class, the police officer instructor told us very much the same thing - listen to your inner voice. We have instincts for a reason.

I'm not quite certain how I'm going to go about teaching my children to listen to their inner voice. I'm going to check the local library to see if they have a copy of "Protecting the Gift".