Keeping your kids safe

After my daughter was kidnapped, I received many requests to speak to groups of parents or children on the subject of child safety. I always kind of wondered about this, because I had failed to keep my daughter safe. Whatsmore, in Michaela’s particular circumstances, there would have been nothing I could have done differently, except to keep her locked in the house, confined to the yard, allowed out only under my supervision. And yes, that is an idea, and it is entirely appropriate for certain ages. But I have had five kids grow up on me, and eventually that tactic fails. You just cannot keep a 22-year old confined to the house. And yet, you think they are not in danger? After Michaela was kidnapped I read the book The Stranger Beside Me, about Ted Bundy, and I kind of collapsed within myself. All his victims were college students. Was there ever a time when I could say, “okay, they are safe now”? Nope. There wasn’t.

This is part of what makes being a parent so special. And yes, I do mean to use that word. There are lots of ordinary kinds of love in this world. There are lots of extraordinary kinds of love also. But there is absolutely nothing like the love you have for your child. There is that saying I am sure you have all heard, that being a parent is like having your heart walk around outside your body, and it is true. So how do you handle this?

When I went to talk to groups about child safety, especially children, I wracked my brain trying to think of every single circumstance they might come up against. Of course they need to be taught not to allow strangers to lure them into a car to see a puppy, or to help search for a lost one. They should never believe anything a stranger tells them about their parents: if someone says your mommy sent me to pick you up, that person would have to know the family code word. I went through as many scenarios as I could of what to do if you do get kidnapped, what to do if you are in the trunk of a car, how to escape if someone is holding you by the wrists, how a small child can overcome an adult kidnapper (thumbs in the eyes with intent to gouge!). But there were so many possibilities, so many things to keep our kids safe from, how could I possibly even think of them all, much less come up with a response to keep them safe? Michaela had been through all the child safety classes not long before she was kidnapped, and yet they did not keep her safe, because nobody had thought to say, “If your scooter (or your bike, or doll, or ball) is not where you left it, don’t go to get it.” So when that man with “fox eyes,” according to Michaela’s friend, moved her scooter next to his car, she didn’t think about it. She just went to pick it up, and fell into his trap.

Who knows what other traps kidnappers might lay? I don’t. So some years ago I came up with what I thought was an absolutely brilliant idea, which was teaching children to listen to their “smart voice,” to enable them to evaluate any situation, even if we haven’t thought to tell them about it, and decide for themselves whether it might be unsafe. And I wrote a book, called, of course, Listen to Your Smart VoiceIt is in my nature to call most things I do and think into question after awhile, however, and this was no exception. By teaching children to examine each situation with an eye to possible dangers, was I just encouraging them to be worry warts? I truly believe that safety education should be empowering to children, that after the education they should walk into the world with their shoulders back and their chests puffed, because they have tools. They have a few super hero tricks up their sleeves, like knowledge and intelligence. But was that the effect this smart voice would have on them? I wasn’t certain, to be honest.

But I am certain that what I am in favor of is keeping the kids safe. I remember having a discussion with a radio personality about kiddie leashes. He believed they were wrong, always, under all circumstances. I believed they had their place. He, and others, have equated the leashes with treating children like dogs. I think that we as humans restrained our children long before we restrained dogs. And why do we leash our dogs? Because they might run off, or might dash into the street, because they don’t know any better, and because we care about them. Well, there is a stage in which our children don’t know any better also, and are equally if not more impulsive, and there is really not a thing we can do about this until they are older. So should we show more care for our impulsive dogs than for our impulsive toddlers? In what universe does that make sense? “These things don’t happen very often,” the radio personality said. He was referring to kidnappings, although kidnappings are far from the only things you need to keep a toddler safe from. “It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “It doesn’t matter if it happens only once in a million years, if that one time is your child.”

The only thing I can tell you is that my daughter was kidnapped and never found. I don’t have any idea what she endured, but I do know it wasn’t good. The morning she was kidnapped she had begged me to allow her to go to the market with her friend. She had clasped her hands and bounced at the knees in supplication. If I had not given in, if I had said no and stuck with it (I had said no initially), there’s a good chance she would have been mad at me, would have gone to her room to sulk a bit. She never would have thought to say, “Thank you for saving my life, mom. Thank you for allowing me to wake up again tomorrow as an innocent child. Thank you for making certain that I would be able to sing my solo part in the school Christmas concert, for letting me graduate from high school, go to college, get married. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy a lifetime of happiness by denying me this one thing.”

How many other times in the world has that happened, and we have not known about it? To you, to me, to all those mothers and fathers and children who daily have to make decisions about what is safe and what is not?

Of course we can’t keep our kids prisoners in our house forever. Let me tell you, I know this because my kids all grew up. And they were all different. I allowed my youngest son to ride his bike to middle school, but only because he did so in the company of a friend, and because all the streets he rode through were filled with parents taking kids to various schools at that time. I did eventually allow my teenagers to leave home, but that might only be because this thing had been invented: the cell phone, which allowed me to keep tabs on them, and which allowed them to reach out to me if they needed to. Now, of course, there are smart phones, with GPS apps so you can actually turn on your phone and see where your kids are. I don’t know about my kids, but I am not sure I would have survived their teenage years without cell phones. Still, my own “smart voice” was always bugging me. “Can I go to this show in the city, mom?” Yikes! What horrors might lie in wait on a trip like that? You want to DRIVE to the city? I was finally able to come to grips with this by listening to co-workers whose kids were away at college. “My daughter went to this show last night,” someone would say, and I would think, wow, her daughter doesn’t even have to ask permission to go somewhere. She just goes. And her daughter was just fine, because the fact is, most times, everything is okay.

Because they do grow up, and they do make their own decisions. And the best thing we can do is to teach them well. We need to empower them in every way. A compliment I have never forgotten was when someone said I was a good driver, because my driving was “aggressive but cautious.” That is how our older kids should be: prepared to go out there and take the world, and yes, to listen to their smart voices about individual situations, but not to look for trouble where none has even been suggested. It is smart to assess an individual who wants to interact with you. But it is anxiety just to be afraid to go somewhere for no reason at all, because most times, everything is okay. 

The other key ingredient to child safety is, I think, love. If our children are well loved, they will be less inclined to fall for dangerous schemes, whether as a child giving in to special attention from an adult, or a teen or young adult to peer pressure. If they are well loved, they are also more likely to be kind to everyone, even those who are not used to being treated kindly. And this might help keep them from being bullied, might give them people who will unexpectedly stand up for them, might prevent them from becoming the target of a killer. At the very least, it will give them peace.

If they are well loved, they will not be as likely to grow up to be predators themselves, and so will help keep the world a safer place. If they are well loved, they are more likely to give that love to others, and perhaps help someone else to be less likely to be a predator.

Eventually, we do have to let them loose in the world. We have to watch them walk out the front door, get in a car and drive away, and we have to trust that we have empowered them to make the best decisions for their lives, for not only their safety but their happiness. Not an easy job, not one anybody ever completely succeeds at, but we try nonetheless, and do the very best we can, because there has never been and never will be anything more precious to us than our children, and our children’s safety and happiness.

3 thoughts on “Keeping your kids safe

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  1. You’re incredible. I am so sorry for your loss. I really do hope you get some closure one day, you’re an extremely inspirational person. This was beautifully written. Michaela is a gem, I’ll always keep her in my prayers.

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  2. I have two daughters, 7 and 5 years old. I have been lovingly dubbed a “smother mother” by my friends and family. I do not keep them home or by my side constantly, but I am very cautious. Out in public they know to hold my hand or stay within arms reach of me (or the adults we’re with). They have been taught to hold onto the cart in stores. To stay where an adult they know can see them. I do not like anyone driving with them for no real reason. I try to gas up my car when they’re not with me. I’m always aware of our surroundings and possible strangers who seem like possible threats. I have anxiety and after having kids I’ve struggled to keep it in check. I do not want MY issues to be their issues. I want to teach them safety, but I don’t want them to be afraid of living their lives. One thing I’ve prided myself on is being hyper vigilant about people around me who may be a threat. Like a lot of parents I am terrified that one of my children will be kidnapped. I have always felt that the steps I take to prevent this means it will never happen. Then a few weeks ago I took my girls to a park to ride their bikes. They’d been asking to do it for awhile and on this day I finally said yes. I jogged next to them… too afraid to let them ride the bike paths out of my reach. We’d been there about an hour when they parked their biked by the playground to play. I played with them for a bit and then walked about five feet away to look at this large oak tree that I’ve always loved at this particular park. I had just taken my phone out and snapped a photo of the tree when a older woman walking her dog approached me. She asked if the girls were mine and I said yes. Then she said “There is an older man standing behind some trees over there watching them. It gave me a bad feeling so I wanted to come and let you know.” She pointed to the man who I had not even noticed standing under some trees about 20 feet away. He saw us looking and pretended to be looking at something up in the tree. My stomach instantly dropped. I knew without a doubt that he was watching my children. The woman walked with me to my truck while I loaded up the bikes. The man got on his bike and road off a few minutes later. I started balling and profusely thanking this woman for acting on her instincts about this man and approaching me about it. She said she lived nearby and would call the police to report the suspicious behavior. I beat myself up for days afterwards for letting my guard down. It shook my confidence as a mother. I thought the precautions I take meant this would not happen to my kids, but honestly, if not for a stranger alerting me what might have happened? The sad, horrible fact is that there are terrible people in the world and as parents we do the best we can to protect our kids. But it takes more than us watching our own, we all have to watch out for each other too. All the good people in this world have to watch each other’s backs. Especially children. That’s the lesson I took away from this. As a society I think we are often taught to mind our own business. To not get involved. But I think as a society we need to be empowered to speak up and step in if something feels wrong. Like you said, even if one bad deed is prevented isn’t it worth it?

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