Protecting the Gift

In mid-November I wrote a post about my internal conflict over how to keep my kids safe without smothering them. It’s an issue that I still struggle with. It’s coming to the fore now because Hannah is not quite so shy as she used to be. I wouldn’t call her trusting, but when she likes someone she will talk and talk and talk. Other mothers at the park get her whole life story, are treated to her personal rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie, or are presented with gifts of leaves and sticks.

I’ve been wondering what I should tell Hannah about talking to strangers. I’ve seen the news magazines showing parents who swore up and down that their children would never, ever get into a stranger’s car. And then some producer shows them a picture of a ‘lost puppy’ and they jump right in to the guy’s van. Their parents had talked at length about ‘stranger danger’, and the message hadn’t sunk in. I’ve also had some personal experience seeing kids discount the messages of their parents. When I was a teenage babysitter on one occasion some old guy in the park offered my young charges a bunch of unwrapped candies. They were extremely angry when I denied them the treat – all the warnings about not accepting food from strangers paled in comparison to a handful of linty chocolates.

So here’s my quandary. I don’t want to scare my kid. I don’t want her to feel that she must be afraid of everyone. I think that it’s likely that my most dire warnings would be fairly useless anyway. But I also feel that it’s my responsibility to prepare both of my kids for the world, to let them know that not everyone has good intentions. That it’s just not necessary to tell complete strangers personal details about yourself.


I shared my quandary with a friend, and she recommended Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. I borrowed it from the library and I just finished reading it, and it was very helpful. I would recommend the book to anyone who is struggling with these sorts of issues.

The first thing that I got from the book was that kids need to develop and hone their instincts about who is safe and who is not. I know Hannah has her own instincts, because she is very selective about who she opens up with. Rather than making blanket statements to her like, “Don’t talk to strangers,” it’s more helpful to allow her to approach people on her own terms. Then as parents we can discuss the interactions she has, and teach her some basic safety rules.

The book also discusses what sort of information kids need to have before you allow them to be outside your house without supervision. It was really practical and concrete, and helped me to develop an idea of what sort of knowledge and abilities I should be cultivating in my kids. And de Becker also confirmed what I already knew, which is that the likelihood that my child will be abducted is virtually nil.

The book includes a list of signs that indicate someone is up to no good. It was interesting to me, because I was approached on a busy sidewalk on a sunny afternoon 7 or 8 years ago by someone who was very compelling. He gave me his phone number and wanted me to call him. I told him that I had a boyfriend, and he said it didn’t matter. Dude was charming and friendly, and because of the setting I didn’t feel at all alarmed. Later, I saw a news report saying that someone who looked an awful lot like him had recently been arrested. I knew it was the same guy, but I managed to convince myself I was probably wrong. After all, he had been so nice. Reading this book, and assessing the signals he gave off, I realized unequivocally that he was Bad News. Even as an adult I still harboured a distorted idea that bad guys would somehow look ‘bad’ – it turns out that they don’t.

This book didn’t address all of my questions, and I wouldn’t say that I completely agreed with every point. I felt that portions were unnecessarily frightening. For example, the author included several stories about people being attacked by strangers, even as he said this never happens. So it isn’t perfect. On the whole, though, the information was solid and helpful.

I now feel as if I have some answers on how to teach my kids about safety, and how to protect them without keeping them indoors for the rest of their lives. I imagine that I will re-read this one more than once as my kids get older and new issues arise.

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  1. I was attacked by a stranger. It’s rare, but it happens. I’m not entirely sure that trusting my instincts would have helped me entirely, but you can be sure that my daughter(s) and I will be talking lots about how it’s more important to be safe than to be avoid the embarrassment of looking silly by hightailing it out of a suspect situation, should the choice ever arise. And abduction is rare, but assorted “interference” — disturbingly common.

    As well as us having the conversations, they will also get to witness me make eye contact with aggressive strangers and clearly tell them to stop what they’re doing/saying, and then get out and possibly tell someone in authority that there is someone I perceive to be dangerous at the mall, park, bus shelter etc. I don’t waste time second guessing myself anymore, and I don’t bother with social niceties if I think there’s a sliver of a chance that I or those around me are being threatened.

    Can I borrow that book when you’re done?

  2. When I was about 8 or so, a man stopped his car beside me as I walked home from school, opened the passenger door and asked me to come over.  I approached the car but immediately felt fear, stopped and then started stepping backward.  He offered me candy and I continued to step backwards slowly.  He then yelled at me to get in the car and I hesitated but didn’t move toward him.  At that moment, another car came and saw what was happening, stopped and the fellow drove off very quickly with the door still open.  I can’t remember the car and I can’t remember anything about him but I distinctly remember, and can still feel, the fear and the knowing I had that this was not good, that I needed to run.  Teaching our children to trust their instincts will not resolve every situation but developing their judgement and supporting them as they learn to trust their feelings will always serve them well.  That’s one reason I don’t tease Hannah for not hugging me when I leave; if she doesn’t feel like it, she shouldn’t do it – unlike going to the dentist 😉

  3. I’ll be vague to protect those involved, but a couple of years ago my (then 1.5 yo) son refused to greet someone who was soon to be a family member and came to dinner at our house (as the date of a beloved family member.) He then proceeded to shout at the unwelcome guest while clinging to me through the whole dinner. The ungreeted person turned out to be of unworthy character (thank god they didn’t become part of the family). Ive trusted my son’s judgement ever since, and wondered when and how my own inborn Spidy-sense got blurred. I hope I manage not to tarnish his. Attacks from strangers aside, I think it serves a damn good purpose a lot of the time. I’m with Kirsten — bring on the embarrassment. Who cares.

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  1. […] he’s a Leo, the sign of nobility. It could be because I’ve never discouraged him from greeting friends and strangers alike. Or it could just be who he naturally is. But whatever the reason, Jacob takes it upon himself to […]

  2. […] sure that young people are capable of far more than we give them credit for, and I know that the risk of abduction is virtually nil. On the other hand, I know that little kids don’t always have the best judgment. On the way […]

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