Saturday, 21 January 2012

Stranger Danger

I recently read an article that got me thinking. I'm not going to name the article, but it was a popular "mom blog", or whatever you call them, about Stranger Danger.
This is an issue that may face our family in the coming year, as my son makes the change from mama's boy at home to a pre-school. (Maybe! At the moment he's adamant he's going to stay at home with me forever!)
I know from teaching for so many years that organisations are well clued-in on child protection policies. I don't however believe they can protect our children 100% from an active pedophile.
I've worked in many a primary school where the staff would be well-versed in child protection; not entering the toilets with a student, not being left alone with a student in a classroom, having a witness there if they need to help a child change out of wet clothes, etc, I've seen it all. Teachers are very aware what one insinuation on their character would provoke, and it is as much for their own protection as for the student's.
However... I'm not sure the external staff are so well vetted. I'm talking about the cleaners, the janitor / caretaker, groundspeople that a school employ. These seem to be older, male members of society, many of whom have been on the payroll for donkey's years, and I'm sure they have never been sat down and informed of any child protection policies. You may argue that their exposure to the students is minimal. I would disagree. They have the keys to every door in the building, they have their equipment in the school, and they are needed all around the building all day to fix / find / clean things.
A few I've met seem "not all there", seeming to be on some community scheme, giving them employment where otherwise they may not have found any. They are often single, older males in their 50s - 60s, and have no family, so hang around the school early and late, often the first and last person in the building each day. Some children are dropped off to school early, as parents are rushing to work, and one school I know has a playground filling up with children from 8am on, although the staff don't open up until 8.30am.
I'm not trying to be alarmist, but I would urge parents to hand their children into the care of their teacher / principal rather than leave them at the gates. Even if it means you are tem minutes later for work each day, at least you are 100% sure of your child's safety.

I'm not paranoid, though, I do believe in the goodness of others and I am raising my children to treat strangers as friends they haven't met yet. We chat away happily to the people beside us in queues, on the bus, in shops/cafes. I am bringing up my sons to believe in the good in people, and the last thing I want is them to feel paranoid that people in general aren't to be trusted. I chat to people of all ages, races and nationalities, and in a few minutes seem to have their life story, and if they have children in tow, Charlie considers he's made a friend. I'm trying to show him by example that people are good, that he won't feel threatened or alone if he ever (touch wood) gets lost; he'll be able to ask someone for help.

Most of this is a moot point anyway, as the statistics show that a child abuser is usually known to the family, i.e. a parent / extended relation or friend of the family. This is the most scary part of parenting for me. I am here to protect my children, that is my number one role as a parent, and I have to be aware and vigilant at all times. I do not voice my concerns in front of Charlie, but I know as he grows up, and friends ask him to attend sleepovers etc, I will be carefully vetting each family that we come into contact with. I will also be careful of him having overnight stays with sports clubs / school trips, as I have unfortunately heard of incidents involving teens in an Irish college being targeted (at night, in the dorm, by one of the Irish college organisers).

I will raise him to respect his body, and to know what kind of behaviour is and isn't appropriate from a peer / adult. We have already discussed how we don't need to keep secrets from each other, and I am careful to use the word "surprise" instead of "secret", as I believe that may help him in the future. I remember clearly my mother telling me at the age of about 8 that I was never to keep a secret from her if someone asked me; this made a huge impression on me, although I had no idea what could go wrong.

A couple of weeks ago a nice old local alcoholic outside the local pub stopped us and gave Charlie a packet of sweets. Charlie was delighted, and then upset when I asked the man to take them back. He had meant no harm, but understood when I explained I couldn't let Charlie take sweets from a stranger. There were no hard feelings, we had a nice exchange and went on our way. I had to give the old "the sweets may have been old / hanky / poisoned" line to Charlie. ("Hanky" is a word he invented to mean disgusting!) I'm glad this happened when I was with him, and I was able to teach him the lesson, rather than it happening on his way home from school at age 9 or something.

I would like to think that I will give him reasonable freedom as an older child, i.e. cycling to school / walking to a friends house / to the shops etc. I don't mollycoddle him, already letting him queue and pay for things alone in a shop, or ask for a napkin / sugar in a cafe. I think the more normal dealings he has with "strangers" the better, as he'll then be able to spot something abnormal. As he grows and asks questions I will answer them the way I have always answered his questions, honestly.

He knows all about willies, vaginas, how babies grow and are born. He still believes we "wished" for Noah to appear in my tummy though, too young to be curious about sex yet. He shares a bed with us and sees our bodies, and has no hang-ups about them, and long may that continue.

I think abuse breeds in secrecy, and the more you are open with your children about their bodies, and how they function, the better it is. The minute something is unspoken and taboo, your child knows you will not discuss it with them, and they will be less likely to share uncomfortable things with you about that body part. Then you run into problems if they are approached by an adult / older child inappropriately, as they will not have the words / confidence to tell you about it.

Child abuse, the words make me sick to look at them, and I recognise there are many forms of abuse; sexual, physical, emotional, neglect etc. The statistics of one in five women dealing with domestic abuse almost leads to the conclusion that one in five children witnesses or deals with it too. As a teacher in primary and secondary level, the most heart-breaking part was hearing about and dealing with children in these situations, and in almost all cases their mother was unwilling to deal with it, or to even listen to the child's story. I urge all mothers to open up the lines of communication with their children; it's never too late, and to believe them if they tell you something. If they seem reluctant to spend time with a relative / babysitter, listen to them and BELIEVE them. The buck stops with you, you are their protector. It's you who will fail them if you allow a situation to continue because you find it too uncomfortable to deal with. If you don't have the strength to deal with it, reach out and get help, there are many organisations who will help you improve your situation. You owe it to your children.

Lecture over. I hope this is irrelevant for you all, and it's purely theory. I just wanted to put it out there as it's something I feel really strongly about, and it's so seldom discussed.
Love to you all, and strength to tackle any difficulties,
Niamh x


  1. Excellent post. I'm hoping it is something I never have to deal with,but it has definitely made me think. Thank you :)


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