I got you with that title, didn’t I? It’s bold, but this post isn’t about making a statement; it’s more about asking questions.
Last Friday, I found myself in a situation that got me thinking, and wondering what other people would think or do if they had been in similar circumstances. Here is what happened.
I took my daughters to a local playground that is situated right across from a lake. The view is beautiful and it always feels peaceful to me there, so I take my girls whenever I can.
My daughters were the only children on the playground, although there were several other adults sitting at the picnic tables between the playground and the water. One of those people was an older man with long, sort of shaggy white hair and a baseball hat shading his face. He sat with his back to the lake, facing the playground and he was watching my kids the whole time we were there.
At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. It felt odd that he was looking in the direction of the playground and the street behind it instead of at the much more attractive view of the water. And whenever I looked in his direction, his head seemed to be turned toward my children. I was picking up child molester vibes and my mommy genes kicked in. I instinctively began hovering around my girls far more than I usually do. I showed obvious and exaggerated affection. I found myself thinking — this guy is going to know that these girls are loved, and watched, and protected and there is no way any creepy old men are going to lure them away from this mama bear.
It was a hot afternoon and I already felt uncomfortable with the situation so we didn’t stay at the playground for long. We headed out to Trader Joe’s to pick up some summer essentials, like ice cream and tortilla chips, and as they usually do, the girls were attracting attention from other shoppers. (They can be very cute together when they aren’t being rotten to each other.) As lined up to check out, my younger daughter was playing peek-a-boo with an older couple behind us, and then they were both smiling and blushing for the teenage boy working at the register.
As the young gentleman was ringing up my groceries, I overheard him say to my three-year-old, “Don’t tell your mother. It will be our secret.” I saw him smile and I smiled and laughed back, assuming that I had just missed what he had said before that. But then, maybe because I already had a case of the creeps, I thought to myself — that is exactly the kind of thing pedophiles say to the children they are abusing. Don’t tell. It’s our special secret. So I stopped smiling.
Some of you reading this might be thinking, holy cow, is this woman off her meds? These are perfectly normal social interactions. The guy at the park probably wasn’t even looking at your kids. Or maybe he was someone’s grandfather, missing his own grandkids and feeling closer to them by watching other small children play. Who knows? The poor kid at the check out was just trying to make a joke. There’s nothing to be seen here; nothing at all to worry about.
I was thinking the same things as I was reflecting on the events of the day and my own internal reaction to them. But I still couldn’t silence that nagging voice in the back of my mind, the one that seems always to be echoing the words, “constant vigilance!” Vigilance of my surroundings, yes, but also vigilance over myself as I react to the things that I see as representing potential danger for my children.
I want to instill a healthy sense of security in my children, but I also need them to know that the world isn’t always a safe place. So basically, I guess what I am saying is that I want them to not be afraid, but also to be afraid. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? And I know that my own reactions to life are the model they are following.
Since I actually am on much-needed (and moderately effective) anti-anxiety medication, trusting myself and the way I perceive the world as it affects my children is difficult. I don’t want to overreact, because I don’t want my children to become fearful, but I also don’t want to laugh off circumstances that could lead them into real danger. The question of how to strike that balance between healthy confidence and healthy wariness is a challenging one for me.
So if you are another parent reading this post, I must as you this: How have you have been able to nurture both of these qualities in your children? Have you faced circumstances similar to mine — where you perceived danger in a situation that could have been (and probably was) perfectly innocent? And how did you react if you did? And for those of you with older children — have you managed to teach them how to discern a safe situation from an unsafe situation? How? What do you suggest parents of young children do to help them navigate a world that can be both so wonderful and so terribly frightening?