Are you perpetually tormented by the What ifs like me? I don’t know any parent who hasn’t been (or isn’t) vexed by questions such as, What if my child becomes severely ill, or What if my kid(s) get in a car crash, or one of the most terrifying queries, What if my child goes missing or is abducted? Yep, those What ifs are tenacious, nasty little buggers. They buzz in my head like sadistic gnats. The ultimate horror of this hypothetical mental hopscotch is that occasionally one of these nightmares ceases to be hypothetical and becomes a frightening reality. My nest of What if bugs was disturbed recently by several local events, sending swarms of suppositional, scary questions to invade my serenity (and perhaps, my ignorance). You see, my two sons and I live in San Diego. The tragic, premature, and senseless deaths of local teenagers Amber Dubois and Chelsea King plagued me with unanswerable questions: What if she didn’t go out that day? What if she had taken a different route? Or gone out at a different time? Then the ultimate-parent nightmare question surfaced: “What if that had been my child?”
Rather than focus on the painful tragedies and the resultant torrid swarm of What if? questions, I propose focusing on What now? How do we keep our kids safe from violent predators without becoming too overly protective and/or blatantly paranoid
An outpouring of answers are being offered and solicited from a variety of sources: A call to action by the editorial staff at the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper; a move by CA Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R San Diego) to create Chelsea?s Law (which looks at extending sentences and parole requirements, among other things, of registered sex offenders), and a request by CA Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the Sex Offender Management Guard review the case of the man charged with the rape and murder of Chelsea King and who is the focus of the 2009 death of teenager Amber Dubois.
The following suggestions are by no means complete, but they are a good framework for keeping our kids safe from people who might want to harm them. They are taken from the Megan’s Law website, where you can find tools, such as the CA Registered Sex Offender Locator.
- Not to unduly alarm you, but we must remember that in the vast majority of cases (up to 90%), children are molested by someone they know. Your efforts at keeping your child safe must be informed by this fact and not focused exclusively on the danger that strangers may present.
- Inform children that it is wrong for adults to engage children in sexual activity.
- Stress to your child that he or she should feel comfortable telling you anything, especially if it involves another adult.
- Make an effort to know the people with whom your child is spending time.
- Teach your children about their bodies; give them the correct language to use when describing their private parts. Emphasize that those parts are private.
- Make sure you know where each of your children is at all times. Know your children’s friends and be clear with your children about the places and homes they may visit. Make it a rule that your children check in with you when they arrive at or depart from a particular location and when there is a change in plans.
- Never leave children unattended in an automobile, whether it is running or not. Remind children NEVER to hitchhike, approach a car or engage in a conversation with anyone in a car who they do not know or trust, or go anywhere with anyone without getting your permission first.
- Be involved in your children’s activities. As an active participant, you will have a better opportunity to observe how the adults in charge interact with your children.
- Listen to your children. Pay attention if they tell you that they do not want to be with someone or go somewhere.
- Notice when someone shows one or all of your children a great deal of attention or begins giving them gifts. Take the time to talk to your children about this person and find out why the person is acting in this way.
- Teach your children that they have the right to say NO to any unwelcome, uncomfortable, or confusing touch or actions by others. Teach them to tell you immediately if this happens.
- Be sensitive to any changes in your children’s behavior or attitude. Look and listen to small cues and clues that something may be troubling your children, because children are not always comfortable disclosing disturbing events or feelings.
- Be sure to screen babysitters and caregivers. Many states now have public registries that allow parents to screen individuals for prior criminal records and sex offenses. Check references with other families who have used the caregiver or babysitter. Ask your children how the experience with the caregiver was, and listen carefully to their responses.
So, as parents and guardians, let’s shift our focus from the torturous What If to the proactive What now because What now? offers a way to channel our anger and fear, and work through grief. I welcome your comments and suggestions as we can all benefit from our pooled consciousness regarding this issue.
About Susan Engel
Susan Engel is a mother of two, writer and parent blogger for Empowering Parents.