I live just north of Denver, Colorado, where last week a ten-year-old girl named Jessica was kidnapped then found murdered and dumped, dismembered, like trash in a field. While I read terrible stories like this once in a while, none have happened so close to home. This one not only made me sick, to think of what that poor little girl’s last hours were like, or what unimaginable pain and anger her parents must be feeling; it also made me really think about how I can best give my children the tools to avoid predators like the one still at large in Colorado.
I don’t have children who are even old enough to walk down the block alone, let alone to school where some monster could swipe them off the street, and I am hyper-vigilant about strangers. I grew up in a generation scared by stories of kidnappings like Adam Walsh, who vanished just after I was born. We rode our bikes around our neighborhood like it was our job, but we knew how to scream and kick and run from strangers, and we knew a lot of the gruesome details about what could happen to us if we didn’t. To this day, I am honestly a bit terrified to walk across even my local King Soopers parking lot at night or pull up to an empty ATM machine. Let alone stop alone at a rest area, no matter how populated it is, even in the middle of the day.
What I want to do for my children is to give them the information they need to understand that terrible people exist and may some day cross their paths without making them unrealistically afraid. I’ve read parenting articles and blog posts on talking to young children about strangers or “tricky people“, a new term used to identify people who may not seem strange at all but may be very, very dangerous. I’ve talked to friends whose children are a little older than mine and gotten advice on what to say. I’ve thought about what I appreciated my mom saying to me, and some of the graphic scare tactics I could have done without. And all of this has led me to wonder more than anything else WHEN I should start talking to N and K, and how much I should tell them when I do start talking to him.
In a tearful panic, shortly after reading the sickening news that the dismembered body in the field had been identified as Jessica Ridgeway, I brought up strangers with N. I asked him if he knew what a “stranger” was, and then told him a mishmash of things about bad people, strangers, and firmly shouting “no” if someone you don’t know asks you to go anywhere with them. We did a quick roleplay where he practiced yelling “no” in his important voice, and we talked about finding a mom with kids to help him if he is ever lost without me or his daddy. I made him repeat several times what he would do if someone offered him candy to get into a car or asked for help looking for a lost animal. Each time, he shouted “no way!” and said he would run far away to another grownup he knew.
When the impromptu talk was over, I didn’t feel any better. I don’t feel like N is now any better-equipped to deal with a potential abductor, nor do I feel like I’ve done a good job broaching the subject. But then, he’s only four, and I wonder how much he can comprehend in any real way. At this age, is it simply my job to keep my eyes on him at all times so that he never has to use the abstract self-protection skills I have poorly introduced to him? Is it unrealistic of me to think I can do that until he’s old enough to understand that bad guys don’t just exist in movies? In the meantime, I can only pray none of this will be tested – now or ever – while I try to find a way to help my children see the world in all its lights and darks and give them the crucial tools to keep themselves in the light.