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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Stranger Danger

I've waited a few days to write about this because I didn't want to blow it up out of proportion or to exploit the situation in any way. A few days ago, I received a letter, listened to a recorded telephone call and read an email from the principal at my daughter's school, all within fifteen minutes. In fact, every parent with a child at the Tongginator's school heard/ read the exact same message. One morning earlier this week, someone in a vehicle tried to abduct an elementary student walking to the Tongginator's school. Thankfully, the child was able to get away, running to the nearest adult - the school's crossing guard.

I know.

My heart stopped, too.

I spent these past few days focusing on what could have been rather than on what actually occurred. It's difficult to do anything else, especially when it happens right in your backyard. We don't know many details, to protect the child's privacy, but we know enough to feel shaken. And a lot more vulnerable than we did last week, despite the police presence now around the school.

At the school's suggestion, I took this opportunity to talk with the Tongginator about strangers, about people who are not strangers and about what to do in a dangerous situation. Actually, to tell y'all the truth, the first thing I did was freeze in fear. Then I called Tonggu Grammy, who gave me suggestions about what to say.

(Because don't our mommas always seem to know what to do?)

I'm ashamed to say that - before this week - I felt mistakenly overconfident that my Tongginator would be fine in such a situation. You know, because she's the Tongginator. She's strong-willed, quite vocal and not afraid of much. Well y'all, she's also strong-willed, quite vocal and not afraid of much. Which means she's a prime target for the puppy trick.

Yes, y'all, she totally would have fallen for it: the old "would you help me find my lost puppy?"

We had a long talk, the Tongginator and me, about grown-ups and strange cars and problems and what to do when someone is trying to trick you. I shared with her, very vaguely, about what occurred that morning, since I knew she'd hear it on the bus or at lunch the following day anyways. I wanted her to learn about the story from me first, not a fellow first grader. And we role-played and practiced how to react in dangerous situations. We talked about strangers and people who are not strangers. We talked about puppies. And candy. And people who say that mommy said yes even though the Tongginator didn't hear me say yes. And we yelled. A lot.

I want to share with y'all a few of my new favorite tips and tricks from Tonggu Grammy.
  1. If your child is old enough, consider creating a special family code word, shared only with trusted adults if and when your child needs to go with them somewhere unexpectedly.
  2. Do not teach your child to yell "stranger!" in a dangerous situation. This only reinforces the stereotype that all dangerous people are strangers... sometimes it's actually someone who knows the child, if only peripherally. Instead, teach your child to scream out, as loud as possible, "You're not my mommy/ daddy!" or "fire!" over and over again. These get peoples' attention, for sure.
  3. Explain to your child that there are some bad people in this world who try to trick little children, so that they can take them away from their mommies and daddies. And that these bad grown-ups often try to trick children by asking for help or directions. Explain to your child that grown-ups should never ask little children for help with their problems. Sometimes children need help from other children, but grown-ups can figure things out for themselves. And - if grown-ups can't figure out something by themselves - then they ask other grown-ups, not little children. If a grown-up asks for help, or for directions, he or she is trying to trick you. And you need to run away.
  4. Teach your children, especially your girls, that it's okay - that it's even GOOD - to yell, kick, scream, bite, hit, whatever it takes to get away from someone who might try to trick or hurt them. Practice yelling. LOUDLY.
  5. Insist that your child walk to and from school in groups. Perpetrators look for vulnerable children who are alone.
  6. Older children should know their full names, parents' full names, addresses and phone numbers.
  7. Talk about who to run to if someone tries to trick them. The Tongginator totally thought she could only tell me or her first grade teacher. Explain that they should run to the nearest safe adult: police officers, people standing behind a counter or desk in a store or office, another parent, mail carriers in trucks, any teacher they know, the school principal.
The school crossing guard.

Every day this week I have thanked God for keeping that child safe. And for giving me the opportunity to begin teaching the Tongginator this very important life skill. It could have been so different.

Thank God it wasn't.


Aus said...

Great advice - you covered pretty much all the bases. I always encourage yelling something like fire - sometimes folks will 'shrink' from the word 'help' but always run 'to' a fire....for the life of me I don't know why!

And it's hard to teach kids the difference between when it's OK to hurt someone and when it's not....

And it's just a crying shame that we have to teach them at all....but it is the world within which we live....

I need to do a post about extending the same stranger awarness to our on-line lives as well - soon.....

hugs - aus and co.

Anonymous said...

How terrifying! I'm so glad the outcome of this particular case was good ... so often it isn't. I remember having the code word - the popular trick back then was to say "Your mommy and daddy are hurt, and they asked me to come and get you and bring you to them." We were taught - no code word, no going with them, no matter what they said about mom and dad.

My dad, especially, taught my sister and me a lot about self-defense - the basic kicking, hitting, screaming when we were little, and then going a bit more in depth when we were older, even to how we walked and carried ourselves. I see girls today who are so completely clueless about any way of defending themselves beyond screaming "help," and I'm so thankful for parents who take the time to teach their children these important skills.

Rhonda said...

So utterly, and absolutely, terrifying. I'm so glad that the child is physically ok.

Thank you for the advice.

Laurie said...

What a scary time for everyone involved. So glad to hear it ended the way it did. Your tips are great- I especially liked #3- that's the one I've had a tough time explaining to my child- thanks for giving me the perfect words.

Jamey... said...

How awful. When I combine this with Peanut's misadventure this week it just makes me weak at the knees.

Jennifer said...

Wow, that gives a lot to think and talk about. I'm glad the child was ok and thank you for this post. I really need to be talking to my first grader about this.

Kerrie said...

I have SUCH a hard time with this one. I KNOW three of my four children would help someone find a lost puppy. I KNOW my youngest would just plain get in a car with someone if they asked. But it broke my heart the day my friendly, helpful, loving son told me a stranger just talked to him at the soccer field. It was the coach from the team he was playing. How, HOW do you teach them to be wary of bad people when the vast, vast majority of people are not out to hurt them? So I focus on don't leave with anyone.

But I still think they might.

Dawn said...

OMGoodness... like this school year hasn't been stressful enough for you already!

All of your mom's points are excellent. We reviewed all those same ones when my kids were younger (and still do occasionally) - especially after we saw a tv show about older kids (!!!) whose parents thought their kids "knew better" and then allowed the news show to see if they could trick them. Every single one of them allowed the stranger into their home! (Freaked me out!) We even did the code and have proof it works. I needed a friend to pick up my son one day from school. She sent her husband in her place and forgot to tell him the "safe word." My son refused to go with him (thankfully!) until he called me and heard me verbally give permission.

It's a scary world and such a fine line we must walk to keep our kids smart and safe vs. making them fearful of everyone.

I'm glad the child at your school is safe!

bbmomof2boys said...

Very good TM! We gave both our boys a code word and they remember it still. (of course, I don't think someone is going to try to abduct a 6'3 or 6'2 inch young man!) Needless to say, they NEVER had to use it but they knew the circumstances in which they were to use it. Little T is a bit different as she really isn't talking yet. Right now she goes everywhere with me and only people on the list at school can pick her up (and yes, id's are checked - even my sons!) She's not outside alone or going off to another neighbors house. At the baseball field I'm always with her or near by so I can keep my eyes on her constantly (ya know, because she's so dag cute!)

I'm so glad you had that talk with your T. Its such a scary scary world out there and no matter how hard we try to proctect our girls from it they still see it in some form or another.

Keep practicing, teach her the code word, teach her to use her strong will to stay out of danger!


Wendy said...

We've had a family code word since the kids were toddlers. It is a great idea.My kids know that no matter who the person is...if they don't know the word...forget it. Get the heck out of Dodge.

autumnesf said...

In Omaha there is a program called Be the Bee (sting them and run) that taught kids what to watch for and how to get loose (ex. if grabbed by the wrist, twist your arm toward the thumb as there is only one thumb but 4 fingers...its the weaker link)and how to stab the cuticle (a sting) ect ect....maybe your school district should consider finding such a program for a week stint in PE each year.

In Tx my Jr high age kid had her bus stalked by a pick-up for a bit and we were all notified. Kinda changed my mind on the whole cell phone vs no cell phone...because right after a boy was abducted and was able to call his mom on his cell and they were able to locate him and got him back before any harm had befallen him. Thank you God.

Plus as a teen I saw a little girl walking down my street with a truck trolling after her. I went out to the street and looked at the truck and it roared off. Asked the girl is she was okay and watched her walk down the street. As an adult I would have walked her home and called the cops and talked to the mom -- but thank goodness I was outside washing the car and did what I did. It can be shocking and leave you unsure of what to do even as an older teen.

And now I think I need to check my new area for a self defense program for my teen and myself. Wishing I was in Omaha again.

Tari said...

It sounds like you might already have this, but the movie Stranger Safety is an awesome resource on this topic. We've found that it's a great way for our boys to learn more about the subject - after they get sick of listening to us. ;)

Takin' time to smell the flowers! said...

I've had that same talk with my kids. Another situation to ask them to consider is what if someone came to school & said, "I'm your mommy's friend and she couldn't come pick you up today, so she asked me to." That's why that code word is a great tip! Thanks the Lord that the "stranger" was not successful. Thanks for sharing!

Olive said...

I love the way you're parenting your daughter. My own very spirited daughters are young (3 and 1). We've been talking to our oldest about strangers, but she's at that age where she loudly yells about strangers when we're in the car or says, right in front of the lady behind us at Wal-Mart, "Is she a stranger? Is she dangerous?"

I hear lots of advice for school-age children. Any advice for talking to pre-schoolers about strangers? I know it's different because she's not really by herself walking to school, but I'm sure there are some things we can say that can help her be safe without making her obsessed about the danger. And she gets really obsessed about things; as she says, it's hard to be 3.

prechrswife said...

That is scary stuff, and a good reminder of the importance of having that talk.

Johnny said...

BIG shiver.

Number 6 and no more counting! said...

"thank God" is right.

WOW, that's some scary stuff!


Mahmee said...

Well....that is breath-takingly frightening. I've said it on my own blog but, I'll say it again here...I HIGHLY recommend the video, 'The Safe Side - Stranger Safety'. It's recommended for ages 4 and up. R has been watching it for 6 months now. She actually enjoys watching it.

Becky said...

It's tricky thing, isn't it? To help your child understand how to protect themselves without scaring the stuffing out of them. I'm so glad the child got away.

Our new issue is public restrooms. I think Riley is old enough that he should be going to the men's room. But I'm always right outside the door (and I usually leave it open a crack). I've told him to scream like a banshee if anything at all seems strange and I will be right there. He thinks this is a bit funny - "Mom, you can't come into a MEN'S restroom!" Oh, yeah? Watch me.

jen@odbt said...

How horrific. I'm so glad the child had the wits to run. We have a code word in case someone comes up to one of my kids and says "your mom asked me to get you or your mom is hurt". Great advice which I'm going to sit down with my kids to discuss. I also print out a small business card and place that in their backpack - it lists our contact info, neighbors info just in case.

Janet said...

Oh, this is my worst nightmare. Seriously. Number three is EXCELLENT. Think we will have a talk about this after lunch again today. Thanks.

Lisa said...

Every parent's nightmare....spoken aloud or unspoken.


TM, please add this the list for tweens/teens as experienced by my big Sister's kids who should have known better...but didn't. (and thankfully it was all legit and okay...but still...)And yeah, she's been having the safety talk forEVER.

A person who pulls up and poses as a reporter seeking a child or children for an interview regarding....(insert) any recent or upcoming community event. They may even produce flimsy credentials or a camera/notepad.

My sister's 2 oldest BOTH fell for it ( again it really was legit, but SO SCARY had it not been!) and only her youngest ran for the front door screaming loudly all the way!

Their ages at the time were 15, 12 and 7. AND they are well informed and bright kids.

Don't ever stop having that conversation...or ever presume they are "too old" to be flattered and fooled.

Thank you for sharing this and yes, thank God the child remained safe.

I need to sit down now.....so scary.

sara said...

That is so scary. My heart dropped into my stomach just reading it. Thank god that little one was alright. As my sweet grandmother used to say, "There's a special place in hell for people who mess with children" of course she also though we should castrate them on tv as a deterent....

Briana's Mom said...

My heart is in my throat. I think me and Miss B are going to have a talk now.

Chrissy said...

This happened to my son when he was 8 years old walking home from a neighbors house. We had a sitter coming over and he knew she would be there soon. When the man approached in his car he said "Your mom wants me to bring you home." He thought for a moment that maybe he was late and this was the sitter's dad.
Then he asked...
"What's the code?"
(Proud mommy moment...)
Confession - I had forgotten we had set up the code word/phrase when he was younger, but he remembered!!
I believe the Lord protected my son that day, but I also believe heavily in the power of empowering your children to not be polite or think they have to do what any adult says... and PLEASE have a code word or phrase!

LucisMomma said...

Another person to look for would be a lady with kids. Yes, some women are bad, but the reasoning is that a mom with kids is probably a good bet for help.

Thanking God that the child was ok!

Ave Powell said...

It's always good for kids to know what to do on the off-chance they are ever in that horrible situation.

Out of curiosity, have you also been teaching her how to say no and stand up to adults who are /not/ strangers? Like her aunts, uncles, babysitters, granparents, etc?

Far more likely for her to be hurt by one of them than a random stranger, and I wouldn't be surprised if that stranger ended up not being a stranger to the child.

Michal said...

That TongguGranny is something else. I have said it before and most likely will say it again. I want her on my side of the fence!

Thank God that child wasn't hurt.
I can hardly breathe sitting here thinking of it.

I will be having a very serious talk with my little miss in the morning.

April said...

During G's Kindergarten year we lived in an open military community in Monterey, CA (meaning not gated like on a base). The elementary school was tucked way inside of the community but honestly the entire neighborhood is a pedophiles dream.
One day a man in a van tried to abduct two sets of girls walking home together-and by walking home I mean walking across the street or down the block to their home. No buses at this school b/c the only kids who go there are the ones who live IN the neighborhood. Thankfully and by the grace of God all of the girls knew to run away but I can't tell you how frightening it was. I had talked to G before about "stranger danger" but it took on a whole new meaning after this incident. Anyway, the guy went on to try it at the local high school in the following days and was never caught.
John Walsh has a great video called Safe Side that is perfect for explaining to kids about stranger danger!!
So thankful to hear that all involved are safe and thanks for sharing.

Kristi said...

This post just sent cold chills up my spine. And reminded me of a similar incident when my sister and I were in elementary school.
Thanks for the reminder that it is never too early to talk to our kids about stranger dangers.

Suzy said...

Yikes! My goodness, I guess they should make this a first day of school lecture & have drills just like fire drills. My younger sister & cousin walked right out of an amusement park with a stranger. He looked down, realized they weren't his kids AND LEFT THEM IN THE PARKING LOT. So, lucky for us, the man had just made a mistake, but how clueless of my sister & cousin and that man. Of course, it was really thoughtless of him to leave two little kids in the parking lot after discovering his mistake.

Annie said...

OH MY! How incredibly scary TM.

Chelsea said...

On of the best books I ever read about this sort of stuff was Protecting The Gift by Gavin De Becker. The gift being the gift of fear. In our society we almost lose our intuition to fear certain people or situations because we are taught so much to be polite. Our fear is the defense system we were designed with. This book teaches how to preserve your intuition and train your children what to do in dangerous situations. The book is not perfect, but I found lots of good advice in it!

Football and Fried Rice said...

I still wonder which of my kids would fall for the puppy. I am sad to say probably all of them? If not the puppy, then what about a video game? Or a cell phone?

I am sure that predators are crafty...like satan.


Saint Louis Family Robinson said...

Oh man! J attended Saftey Town (put on by our police department for incoming kindergartners) this summer. It was 2 hours a day, for two weeks. It a bit of a pain to do while we had cousins in town (three different set of cousins were in town during the two weeks). BUT it was so worth it. Parents were requested to attend the Stanger Danger session... ohmigosh, I learned so much. (and it is EXACTLY like TG outlined! - she is such a smart woman!). And now I realize there is on more thing to add to the list: THIS IS ONGOING - MUST REPEAT! And REPEAT OFTEN!!!!

Recovering Sociopath said...

I'm glad you made point number 2-- stranger kidnappings are scary and high-profile but are actually very rare. Children are far, far more likely to be abducted or abused by someone known to them. I have echo Chelsea here and recommend Gavin deBecker's excellent books, _The Gift of Fear_ and _Protecting the Gift_.

Patty O. said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I have been thinking more and more about this after an incident that happened the first week of school with Danny. There was a mixup and they let him leave the building alone. Yes, alone.

I found him wandering around outside--thankfully, he knew to wait for me and not to cross the street. And I have been thanking God since then that no scary pedophile was around waiting to grab a kid alone.

So, now I realize I really need to start talking to my kids. But I didn't know how. Until now. Thanks!

Wanda said...

Thank you TM for sharing this. So scary. Time for more talk - it really is an ongoing conversation.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for sharing your story and these tips--I know you must have been terrified. We recently tried going over some of these same points with our four and now three year old, and it is frightening to see how easily they could be tricked. I am going to add some of Tonggu Grammy's suggestions to the list.

The Byrd's Nest said...

Your mom gave awesome advice and I have had to do that with my girls now also especially because we are in Mexico....where kidnappings are frequent.

When we had that shooting in front of our house we were so unsettled for days but we had to remind ourselves that God protected us like He protected this precious child. Can you even imagine what this world will be like when our grandchildren are growing up???? Praying for you and all of the parents and children at the school. Big hugs my friend:)

Sharie said...

I'm pretty up front about it because of my own experiences in life, we have talked often about the candy trick, the pet trick, but I'd never thought about someone telling her I was hurt and she would TOTALLY fall for that. We just talked last week about a code word, and we just reiterated it.
She didn't like talking about it at all, but I know it's important.

We've also talked about the weakest points on the body for her to aim for - her favorite was poking the person in the eyes. She thought it was funny, but I know she'll remember it.

The other thing I stress is the good and bad touch and that any touch that makes her uncomfortable she can tell me or someone else about - EVEN if the person who does it tells her they will hurt her or someone she loves if she does. I explained that people who hurt children often them them that just so that they won't tell on them - but it's important to tell so that the person won''t touch another child.

There are a lot of scary things in the world and all we can do is give our kids the tools to handle themselves. Then we have to trust that they are strong, smart, and will do retain what we have taught them.

Cavatica said...

Good stuff. I went to a program that taught "Check First Charlie", which you can probably look up online. It covered some of the things you did, including the code, which we were told your child should use before going with ANYONE including those they love. It's a universal precaution - always use it, even if you don't think you need it. Those who love you will be impressed that you asked and they should know the code! The instructor also said that many kids' ideas of uniforms are very broad, which was a little scary. They might include someone with an insignia on their shirt, but who should not be trusted. At 3 1/2, we are starting on this stuff too. It's hard to know how to do it without terrifying your child. How did TG handle it?

Aunt LoLo said...

Oh. My. Goodness.

We checked out a book from the library a few weeks ago (SJ picked it out from the Chinese section). I didn't realize, until Lo Gung read it to the kids, that it was ALL about...exactly this situation. A man, in a van, scaring little girls. (He turned out to be harmless - a city surveyor that wasn't paying attention to what he looked like.)

So, so scary.