What do you think?

It’s been one of those “one for the record books” weeks. I won’t trouble you with all the details, except to say that if your loved ones surround you in one piece, remember to hug them tight tonight.

As for me, this week I got to see exactly how much I’ve been living in LaLa Land. (This is the part where I’d really appreciate your feedback.)

I’ve mentioned previously about how I’ve always felt very comfortable leaving Cait alone in the house if I needed to run out for a quick errand. One, because Cait and I have had dozens of very pointed conversations about “stranger danger” over the years. And we’d participated in a school program about how to keep yourself safe, both on the internet, and out and about the town. We’d even practiced what she’d do if someone she didn’t know tried to approach her for “help,” etc. And, two, because I knew that with Kiera by her side, no one would ever be able to get into the house, never mind near her person. Of that I was absolutely certain. And, three, because I never leave the house without reminding her not to answer the phone or the door when I’m not home.

Lest you think me a tad paranoid, let me share a few wonderful tales from my days of  living in New York City. First, there was the time I was minding my own business walking down 57th St in broad daylight, when I noticed people running away from me. Before I really had time to process the oddness of that, I heard a pop–like a flat tire blowout. I turned around to see that the police had just shot an escaped criminal, who was running to grab me. There was also the time I had my house broken into — when I was in the house, alone. And then there was the time that a guy with a knife tried to jump me in a parking garage.  I turn into a world class sprinter when I get scared, which is what saved me that time.

There are more stories I could share, but the point is that “stranger danger” and I have been on an intimate first name basis going way back. That’s why it has been so important for me to educate my daughter (without trying to scare the begeezus out of her).

So, imagine my surprise when Andrew and I had to run out (literally, only for ten minutes) to go vote, only to return home to hear that a stranger had stopped at our house. Our house, which has no nearby neighbors. Our house, at night. Our house, with no adults home.

Seeing that Cait was none the worse for wear, I assumed that she’d handled the matter as she’d been instructed a hundred times. But just to be sure, I asked her what she did.

Are you ready…?

She locked Kiera in the kitchen!!!!  And went and answered the door!!!!!!!!!  Even after seeing that it was a strange man!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

After I picked the blown pieces of my mind back up off the floor,  I learned that the guy turned out to be someone who was going door-to-door to ask people to get out and vote in a very close Congressional race.

So, no big deal, right? All’s well that end’s well and all that good stuff, right?

Since that night, I’ve been turning it all over in my mind. And my thinking goes something like this: I hate that we live in a world where I feel I have to teach my daughter to fear anything. Yes, I can rationalize it and couch it in less awful terms — like I’m just teaching her to be smart, to be aware, to pay attention, to be alert.  Blah-bity-blah-blah-blah. But, when you boil it down, I’m teaching her to be afraid.

I hate that.

And what good does it do? For all my efforts, she STILL opened the damned door! AFTER LOCKING KIERA IN THE KITCHEN!!!

Sorry, it’s going to take me a while to get over that.

So back to the fear thing.  I’m about as street smart a person as you’ll meet. You want to go uptown to Harlem? I’m the girl you want to have with you. Down to Chinatown or the Lower East Side– yep, you want me along.  But all those street smarts did nothing for me in the circumstances I mentioned above. Because, no matter how well we think we’re prepared, sometimes life just happens.

That, taken with the fact that we now live in about low-crime a community as you can find, do I want to keep reinforcing the message of  “stranger danger?” Is there a better, “healthier” tact to be taken? How can I also teach my daughter to be her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, if  most of those “brothers and sisters” are strangers? These are the questions I’m asking myself.

These are the questions I’d like to ask you.

What has been your approach to this subject? What has worked and not worked for you?

24 thoughts on “What do you think?”

  1. Karen, you will have to tell us how your karate lessons go. My dad has been practicing karate for decades, which is why I think I took so quickly to self defense. I spent my elementary school years hanging out in the back of the dojo trying to kick the sparring bags with my short legs, etc. :-)

  2. Our daughter was crazy about people when she was a toddler and would happily go up to any stranger when approached. It used to scare me to death. The worst thing I ever had to do was tell her that not all people were good — that some were as dangerous as wild animals. I’ll never forget the look of shock and dismay in her eyes when I told her that. It made me feel so bad, so ashamed. But to this day I think that by telling her that I may have saved her life. She was much more cautious after this and far less to run away from me in a crowd.
    I teach my daughters the best street sense I can; I try my hardest to show them how to live safely and wisely. Once I’ve done my best, I have to hope for the best and let them get on with their lives. It’s awful that we live in a world like this — where people are often predators and we have to teach our children to be watchful and fearful.

  3. Well, Karen…….I had been toying with taking a karate class with my daughter off and on for about five years now. It doesn’t take a ton of bricks to fall on me, I recognize “a sign” when I fall over it! We are going to enroll ASAP….. Thank you again for your timely post…..thank you all for your contributions and the little push I, now too, realize I needed!

    Would love to hear about your class experiences sometime soon!!

  4. Karen, maybe there is a class you and Cait could take together! My high school offered a course and I was able to take it all 4 years and really learned a lot and gained a lot of confidence from it. Girls need to learn to kick a little butt sometimes :)

    1. Teetotaled, way ahead of you on this one… : ) Found a local place recommended by a friend who goes with her daughter. Black belt, here we come. Okay, maybe yellow belt.

  5. Thanks Michelle, I picked it up at the Library yesterday.

    Teetotaled, I think self-defense and martial arts are a great idea! Cait needs to be forced out of her nice-girl default to understand that she has more options.

    Cindy, thanks for all your contributions to the conversation.

    She_beast, the reports of those studies are certainly disconcerting, but not terribly surprising. That’s why I’m thinking that all I can do is offer due diligence, continuing education on the subject, and an ongoing open dialog, and then let it go.

  6. Like you, I covered all the basis with my daughter…as did her school for years on end. Fast forward to 16 years of age…she’s in her car and it breaks down less than a mile from home. Does she simply walk home? No, she gets in a car with a complete stranger. I almost lost my mind. Her friend did something just as stupid…a homeless guy asked her for a ride, at night in the DARK, and she let him in her car and took him to a remote location. Her mother almost had to be tranquilized when she foundout. Study after study has shown that no matter what we do as parents to prepare our children for stranger interactions NOTHING works. My daughter is 30 years old now and has been on her own for over a decade…and I STILL worry that she’ll do something stupid.

  7. Wow….great dialog everyone, this really touched a nerve! Karen, by addressing this topic I think you have opened up some avenues for us to talk more to our kids, and address the fear in ourselves while we’re at it. Thank you….

  8. I was also shocked when I got to the part where Cait locked kiera in the kitchen!
    I am still very much in stranger/danger mode even as a grown woman. My husband sometimes thinks I am overreacting because I refuse to be home alone when workmen or delivery men come to the house. No thanks, not worth the risk!
    One thing that was helpful to me as a teen was taking self defense courses. It really gives you a sense of confidence and teaches you how to appear more unappealing to would be attackers. It is so rare for young girls to do any type of contact sports so doing the self defense courses were awesome because you got to hit and scream at the instructor. We were taught to use our small size and our speed to our advantage and taught to always, always fight back no matter what! Lessons I still take with me today.

  9. Michelle O'Neil

    Have you read Gavin DeBecker’s Protecting the Gift? It speaks of teaching your child to trust their intuition, and not a blanket, black and white stranger/danger type of message. It is a really good book. For me with a child with Asperger’s it is especially hard. She cries in martial arts class if it is implied that a block is used because, oh, say, someone might attack her. The teacher has learned to follow it with, “It will probably never happen.”

    I’m glad your daughter is okay. That scenario would have freaked me out too!

  10. I am probably going to be very unpopular with my take on this but I trust Karen to give me the benefit of the doubt.

    I have spent most of my life paralyzed by fear. It did not keep me safe, nor help me figure out what my intuition was saying because I couldn’t hear it over the shrieking fear. I have lived in different situations across the US from remote poverty-stricken rural areas to small towns to inner city near-ghetto neighborhoods where a woman shot her abusive domestic partner in my front yard. I lived at an historic villa in Switzerland that had no working locks, and traveled around Europe from Greece to Holland and Germany to Spain often alone.

    I was raped by a classmate, assaulted by a border official, dealt with 3 years of intimidation and vandalism which the police refused to intervene (this was not in the ghetto), and had a gang of thugs try to force past me at my own front door. Each time I blamed myself for being stupid and not exercising due vigilance. But none of those situations was preventable by vigilance or smarts, and not understanding that reality hindered my ability to shift over to coping, recovering and moving forward confidently.

    What I have been figuring out recently is that during all that time what I lacked were appropriate coping tools and skills. It is impossible to guarantee 100% safety over a lifetime. Being able to move out and forward confidently has more to do with being self-confident about coping with bad situations and being confident that one will recover and move on if/when they do happen. The really amazing thing is that I did succeed at helping my kids acquire these tools even though at the time I was doing it I was oblivious to my own lack.

    I have not read “The Gift of Fear” so I can’t address its major tenets but I suspect it is something akin to developing a sense of hypervigilance or always “being on patrol.” Being “always on” is not realistic for finite beings. Also the “always on” mode creates a physiological stress environment which triggers the GAS response and that leads to elevated cortisol levels which in a short-lived actual emergency are a good thing but constant elevated levels are being blamed for more and more negative physical and neurological and emotional aberrations.

    I also disagree with the person who said that the present is worse than any other time in history. Today is not so very different from any other era with the possible exception of population density. Today a personal crime is more likely to happen next door than in the next county due to population density bringing the risk of a person with a bent toward harm of being within our sphere. That compounded with our high mobility factor creates a higher number of people who are ill-versed to the culture in which they are trying to live and which the population density raises the risk for living with a dangerous person nearby who is also a stranger. But the odds still favor a person being the victim of a crime perpetrated by someone they are acquainted with rather than a stranger.

    Since I’ve probably generated more shock waves than a single comment ought to be permitted, I’ll shut up.

    1. “…ability to shift over to coping, recovering and moving forward confidently.”

      Deb, I agree with you 100%! Self-blame does no good in these situations. What’s important is figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other and moving on.

      This is essentially what The Gift of Fear talks about. I think you might find it an interesting read. It’s a basic text on violence — how to recognize it, how to predict it, how to avoid it, and how to cope with it if avoiding it doesn’t work.

  11. Wow, Karen, what an eye-opener for all of us. My daughter is 15 and at the age where she rolls her eyes when I remind her of potential dangers. So what do we do? Cross our fingers and hope that something has sunk in. Let’s just hope Cait will always be as lucky as you’ve been in scary and dangerous situations.

  12. Maybe it’s time to give up on the ‘do it because the world is scary’ and switch to ‘do it because my mother said to – even if I think she is crazy and paranoid’.

    As long as she’s *doing* it, the habits and intuition can develop over time.

    It may be a mental ‘out’ to do something because she doesn’t want to disappoint you, instead of having to weigh the theoretical danger against wanting to be braver and more independent as she gets older.

    ‘my mom would be pissed’ is also flies a lot better with many friends than ‘I don’t think it’s safe’.

  13. Oh, sorry, I forgot….the author is Gavin De Becker. Go to Amazon….it will be the best $10.00 you ever spend.

    1. Cindy, I read this book some years ago and loved it! Time to take it off the shelf for a reread. Thanks for reminding me. It’s a great book and I think Cait is also old enough now to read it.

  14. Karen…
    One other thing I would like to add. There is a book out called “The Gift of Fear”. If you have not read this book, read it. It should be mandatory reading for every single female, young or old. I wish I could put this book into the hands of every woman/girl I know, for if you internalize what it teaches, it will at some point in your life save you. It teaches us to not be so “nice”. As women we want to please (I can so understand Cait’s tendency towards this), we don’t want to rock the boat, appear uncool or offend, etc., etc. It basically teaches you how to instantly act when your “center” tells you something is not quite right. Just think about the time an elevator has opened and it’s just been you and the sole guy already on it, and you’re supposed to get on? I think not. Be bold, act swiftly and be not ashamed of going with your gut. I can’t recommend this book enough, while it packs a punch, it also allows for the beauty and innocence of life to be present amidst the caution.
    OK, this has been a public service announcement……now get the book ladies!

  15. Dearest Karen…
    I can completely relate to everything you wrote, and think and feel on this subject. I have a seventeen year old daughter and a five year old daughter. I have laid awake at night with the same questions in my mind…..how to be smart and careful, how to not fear the world….and that’s just for myself! When it comes to my own daughters I have always been somewhat extreme, not crazy, but VERY careful. I’m sure I looked crazy though when my husband took his eyes off of our daughter, just for a split second, and she disappeared in a crowd of people at the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I was running and screaming my lungs out in an absolute panic, just to find her standing a mere five feet away laughing at mommy “acting so funny”. Anyway, what I know for a fact is that the world isn’t safe. Anywhere. Period. Fatalist thinking? That’s debatable, but do I “feel” better being a little standoffish around strangers then I do being “open” around them. Yes. Do I teach my daughter’s to be this same way? I cringe…..but, yes. I am a big believer in “gut instinct”. It will save your life. Honor that within you that says, “caution”, “run” or “scream”, no matter what. Being centered, with whatever faith you practice, is a good way to be tuned into that place within us that “knows”. If it tells you to protect your child with a heightened sense of caution, then do it. Frankly, I would rather be safe (and crazy looking sometimes) then to be sorry. Three weeks ago a man was shot dead ten feet from me in the parking lot of my very favorite bookstore in the world. Things like that just don’t happen here….. Bet your ass they do. All I have been able to tell myself since then is that I’m grateful it wasn’t a random act of violence, but rather a lover’s quarrel. A deadly one. Thing is, seconds before it actually happened, the hair stood up all over my body, and not just because two men were arguing. It was enough so to make me stop, pause, and look around. So, I saw the gun, heard the shot, saw him fall, as it happened, INSTEAD of walking right through the scene AS it was happening. Mere seconds probably saved me from something more then just shot nerves. My point is, intuition will never steer you wrong. It’s our divine birthright….this inner guidance. I play up the good and beautiful that’s in the world all the time, every chance I can get. I tell my daughters that life is wonderful, that there are more good and kind people then not, but I tell them to be careful, and how to be careful. I also honor my mother bear skills along the way. Then I pray. Then I listen to my gut. And I act accordingly. Thank you for bringing up this important issue, Karen. I’m with you, as mother, as a kindred spirit. As a woman.

    Peace be on your heart as you navigate the way with your daughter. Peace be on all our hearts. Amen.

    1. Cindy, Holy Cow!!! On both losing sight of your small daughter in a large crowd even for a few seconds — so scary, and being so close to a fatal shooting!!!

      I highly value intuition and like to think I have a fairly well-honed connection with mine. I always do a gut-check before ever leaving Cait alone anywhere. (Dear Readers who don’t know us well yet, Cait is now 13 years old.)

      So did my intuition fail me, because I didn’t have a sense of danger? Or was there really no danger to pick up? That’s my issue with intuition–it can be so nebulous. Absolutely something to check in on, and I do. But, I’m sure like you, I want a lot of other back-up checks and balances. Which is what I thought I had.

      The trick is how do I instill those checks and balances in Cait? Because, clearly, they haven’t been internalized in her yet.

      So do I really ratchet up “The World Is A Dangerous Place” message? And how do I do that, getting back to Susan’s and your point again, while also reinforcing that most people are good — or at least not going to kill you?

      Maybe I need to just get past the point where I’m still shaking my head in disbelief before I’ll be able to think more clearly about it.

      You voice well for me too that it’s about the communication, the instruction, the mother bear thing, and the praying. I guess where I get stuck is in the “okay now take a deep breath and let it go” part. : )

  16. AUGH! I can’t believe she locked Kiera in the kitchen and opened the door! But I read a survey in which a man asked all these kids to help him find his lost puppy. The parents of all the kids said, ‘Our kids are street-smart. They will say no. We have taught them this.’ The majority of the kids went to help look for the puppy.

    I don’t have easy answers. To make matters worse, we keep moving and having to learn what is safe/normal in a new place. I’m just going to keep checking back here and see what others come up with. I do know there has to be a balance, that we can’t stop bad things happening but we do things to minimize the possibility, etc. We now live a two-minute walk from the school but don’t let the twins walk alone; they are 12 but look 8 and are blonde to boot. (Arab country) Elliot, on the other hand, is 13 but looks 15 and he’s allowed to walk alone and to take the twins. I talked to Moroccans and other expats and all seemed to think this was good.

    1. EDJ I also knew about that study and even talked to Cait about it! Can you believe it?! We even went to the park and role-played. We talked about strategies and the exact words she was to say in such a situation.

      Cait and I have spent probably more time than most mother/daughters really working on this. Because I know Cait’s first impulse is to be a people-pleaser, I know that she’s in a little more danger right off the bat because of that.

      And I totally understand the “blond hair, light eyes” thing. Someday, I’ll share some of my stories traveling through Mediterranean countries with long blond hair and light green eyes… I can only imagine all the logistics you have to figure out every time you move. Yikes!

      Maybe the bottom line is that we do all that we can to help teach our kids and ensure their safety, and then we have to let go.

      Why does that option not feel so good…?

  17. Whoa. Just stumbled across your blog but…hmmm. Hate to make the child feel afraid but I am chilled thinking what might have happened to her. I sadly but truly do not believe there are any safe places nor that the dog is enough to keep someone safe – I think it has to be painted in absolutes – the door cannot ever be answered if she is alone, the dog must not be locked up, the phone must be nearby. She is a tween – yes? I think it’s important for her to know that while the world is a place of lovely people and hope and good things, there are also some pretty awful types and sometimes they are hard to tell apart right off the bat… just my two cents. I’m a children’s librarian and we are constantly having to tell people that their child is not safe left alone in a library (we are in a small city) – they think, ah, children’s room, but gosh, what lurks…sigh. Good luck with whatever solution you come up with.

    1. Susan, my blood ran cold too when I heard what she did. I thought I was going to throw up, I was so upset! It was definitely a humbling moment for me as a parent. Cait knows all those absolutes — never open the door, etc., so I thought I was covered there. And in a million years, I never would have guessed that Cait would lock Kiera up. I’m still shaking my head in disbelief.

      That’s why I’m questioning where do I go from here…? What more conversations and practices and admonitions can I give…?

      Granted, this situation created a humongous “teachable moment” and maybe that will have more power than all the other talks put together.

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