“Worry is the fear we manufacture; it is a choice. Conversely, true fear is involuntary; it will come and get our attention if necessary. But if a parent or a child feels fear constantly, there is no signal left for when it’s really needed. Thus, the parent who chooses to worry all the time or who invests unwarranted fears into children is actually making them less safe. Worry is not a precaution; it is the opposite because it delays and discourages constructive action.” -Gavin de Becker
On August 27th, 2009 I received news that I had long ago given up hope of hearing. I was utterly shocked and dumbfounded but also ecstatic beyond my wildest dreams. It was a feeling I have only experienced in that one unexpected moment.
Jaycee Lee Dugard had been found.
Though everyone else in the world who heard the news was also overjoyed, this event carried extra weight for me, my family, and my childhood friends. I didn’t know Jaycee personally when she was kidnapped from a South Lake Tahoe street while walking to the bus stop on June 10th, 1991, but she lived in my neighborhood and was one grade ahead of me at Meyers Elementary School.
We got to school that morning and were soon in “lockdown” mode (years before that term was a part of the common parlance and practice of our country). I remember being under my desk, knowing a girl from my school had been kidnapped, and thinking that the bad guy was waiting for me outside.
That morning changed everything for me and my community. Putting this blog together has inspired me to revisit a note I posted on Facebook days after Jaycee was found entitled On Jaycee, South Tahoe, and the Ties That Bind.
Re-reading that old post helps me to see that Jaycee’s return effected me just as strongly at age 28 as her kidnapping did when I was 10, partly because I had become a mother by then and it served as the catalyst for my search for knowledge about violent behaviors and what I need to know about keeping myself and my family safe from them. Mycelia had just turned three when Jaycee was found, and all I could think was How do I prevent something like this from happening to her?
It’s a question that is on everyone’s mind after the horrifically heartbreaking mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week. Rather than share my own pain and grief about that event (which is probably no different than yours, especially if you, like me, have or love a child the same age as those slain), I’m going to share with you some of the best advice I’ve uncovered during my research after Jaycee’s return, as well as links and book titles that will deepen your understanding.
The most important thing I want to convey in this post is that EVERY PARENT IN THE WORLD should read Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. There is absolutely no excuse for not gleaning the best and most well researched information there is about keeping your child/ren safe. Some parents say that they “can’t even think about that happening” to their kid, or that they fear that reading a book about violence and children will only make them more paranoid. But I assure you that the opposite is true, reading this book has served to calm the minds of myself and the many, many friends I have recommended it to. It is not a sensationalist book written to capture your attention and sell copies. It is a book written by an expert in a caring and thoughtful manner, with countless real world tips and examples.
And choosing to pretend that nothing bad will ever happen happen to your child only puts you and them in a more vulnerable position. Parents who don’t read this book will miss out on such practical advice as:
- Tell your child that if they get lost in a crowded place to seek out a woman, especially one with children of her own, to ask for help (de Becker explains at the beginning of at least one of his books that he won’t even be discussing violence perpetrated by women, nor will he use the general pronoun “she” when describing acts of violence, because women simply don’t commit these kind of crimes. Not never ever, but certainly not often enough to warrant any cultural discussion of. It is for this same reason that he advises parents to advise their children to only seek a woman’s help in these situations).
- Tell your child that if a strange man is ever forcefully leading them somewhere to yell out “This is not my father!” instead of just struggling and/or yelling “No” or “I don’t want to go” or something similar. When people see a defiant child struggling with a parent in public, our reaction is to respectfully avert our eyes and let the little family episode play out without our interference. But how differently would you react if you heard a child yelling “This is not my father”?
- Do not tell your child not to talk to strangers. Instead, teach your child how to talk to strangers.
- Learn to read the very predictable signs that a man is engaging in a relationship with your family and/or your child for the hidden purpose of initiating sexual contact once trust is gained. De Becker calls these recognizable behaviors “Survival Signals”, and learning what they look and sound like should be required knowledge for all parents (and single women, as these same strategies are used to victimize grown-ups as well [de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear focuses on violence against women and groups- as in mass shootings- and I recommend it just as highly). These Survival Signals include Forced Teaming: A predator uses the word we when we isn’t true or accurate. It establishes premature trust and makes a kid feel obligated to stay around this adult, Typecasting: This involves a slight insult, initially one that’s easy to refute. “You’re one of those kids who’s too scared to disagree with your parents, aren’t you?” or “Wow, I really didn’t take you for one of those over paranoid parents who doesn’t let their kid do anything fun”, and Loan-Sharking: Predators will often give a child something (the common example is candy) to make her feel indebted.
I also cannot recommend de Becker’s first book strongly enough. As his website puts it:
“In The Gift of Fear, de Becker draws on his extensive expertise to explode the myth that most violent acts are random and unpredictable and shows that they usually have discernible motives and are preceded by clear warning signs. Through dozens of compelling stories from his own career and life, he unravels the complexities of violent behavior and details the pre-incident indicators (PINs) that can determine if someone poses a danger to us. Readers learn how to:
- Recognize the survival signals that warn us about risk from strangers
- Rely on their intuition
- Separate real from imagined danger
- Predict Dangerous Behavior
- Evaluate whether someone will use violence
- Move beyond denial so that their intuition works for them”
I realize, of course, that both Jaycee’s kidnapping and the Sandy Hook massacre may not have been preventable. We all painfully recognize that there is no 100% effective method of shielding our children from harm. But most violent acts do have predictable warning signs and if they don’t or were overlooked and the act is upon us, then we all have a primal defense mechanism inside us that springs up full force when we or our offspring are in danger- our intuition. De Becker’s books help us to make the most effective use of both strategies for preventing and surviving violence.
After you order your copies of both books from your library or online (one friend I recommended them to ended up buying three copies of each so that she could always have plenty to lend out and keep in constant circulation among her friends), you can read Questions About Child Safety while you await their arrival. Jaycee’s memoir A Stolen Life is also a great read; it details her life during those years many of us were desperately pondering her fate, as well as showcases what a bright, capable, and positive young woman and mother she has become in spite of her ordeal. She is an amazing and inspiring human being. (You can see video of Jaycee and her mother Terry talking about their reunion here. I drove the 2.5 hours to my mom’s house to watch the whole Diane Sawyer interview with her and we were bawling our eyes out and hugging each other like mad watching this part). I also love Free Range Kids- How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry). And finally, if your child is old enough to have heard about and understood whatever recent fear-inspiring tragic event is in the news (and I’m grateful mine isn’t yet), read Mr. Roger’s advice on talking to children after a tragedy:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”