Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Past Deadline: Creepy Old World

Because we don't have enough to worry about. Published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, May 26/09.

Creepy old world

I have a sweet seven-year-old in my midst. I’m told that, in general, this is a magical age. Seven-year-olds are still full of wonder; they are inquisitive and curious and ask “why” a lot but usually in a sensible way, with thoughtful questions and their opinions and ideas thrown in. Seven-year-olds are loving, loveable and still seem to like doing stuff with their parents. It’s a great age.

Seven is one year away from being eight, which is the same age Victoria Stafford was when she was abducted after school one day six weeks ago and subsequently killed.

Man oh man.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, which certainly has its merits, you’ve probably heard of Tori Stafford. Her disappearance was highly publicized and there was also that surveillance video showing the woman with the white coat and long, dark hair walking with Tori away from her Woodstock elementary school.

You don’t want to panic about these things, but they make you think. Being a “helicopter” parent, hovering over junior all the time, is just no good. Kids need to be kids and they need to learn how to do things on their own. I already struggle with this a bit because my lovable seven-year-old is a worrier like his mom. (As an aside, I stand in awe of my three-year-old, who embraces every new experience with gusto. I’m hoping she’ll rub off on us a bit.)

Our society has become paranoid. Even though I tell myself that child abductions, especially by strangers, are a rare thing and we don’t need to immediately fall into hyper-vigilant mode, I still find myself wondering how something like this could happen.

As I write this, the police haven’t revealed much about the two people arrested for the abduction and murder of Tori Stafford. It has been reported in the media there may be some sort of connection between the girl’s mother and the woman accused in the abduction. That’s where it gets scary.

It’s one thing to tell your kids not to talk to strangers. It’s fairly straightforward to explain they should never get into someone’s car, even to help give directions or for candy or to see puppies. Just don’t go anywhere with a stranger.

But what do you tell them about people they kinda know? What if it’s some person they’ve seen Mom chatting with in a friendly way? What if it’s someone they recognize from a store or a restaurant? Or someone Mom or Dad has worked with before?

What if someone you know and have no reason to suspect or distrust suddenly becomes that person who shows up at your kid’s school and spins your trusting little guy some yarn about Mommy needing her to pick him up instead that day?

It’s not right to teach kids to be suspicious of everyone. It’s not fair to fill them with fear and distrust. Childhood should be about exploration and growing and fun and just not having to worry about stuff. During childhood kids should be learning how to become thoughtful citizens who will help other people – even strangers.

This kind of fear erects fences around us. If, for example, I see a child who I don’t know in some sort of distress (skinned knees and many tears), if I offer to help will it a) scare the bejeebers out of the kid (“Ah! Kindly stranger! Run away!”) or b) make me think twice about helping because I am a stranger?

All we can do, I guess, is help our kids to develop their common sense and to trust their guts. If the story doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right, then tell an adult you do know and trust – such as a teacher if you’re at school.

I’m not looking forward to the day when the details about Tori Stafford’s case are revealed. On the one hand, I feel a need to know how the accused woman allegedly lured Tori away. What did she say to her? On the other hand, will it give rise to new worries? How can I prevent this from happening to my kid?

Yes, living under that rock looks pretty good sometimes.

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