Be A Helper When Children Need You To Be

Our family was at Home Depot this afternoon and during the trip 7yo Amelia become separated from us. It was my fault, I asked a staff member a question and I thought Amelia heard me say where I was going and to follow me, but she was dancing around with two watering cans and when she realized I was gone, she didn’t know which way to turn to look for me. I was less than 20 feet away, but she didn’t know which way to look. She did what we had taught her — stay put and stay calm, because her dad and I would start looking in the last place we found her.
Surly enough, I found her curled up and crying on a shelf in the Garden Center, with no less that four adults looking on but not a single one approaching her or getting her help.

I asked Amelia what had happened, apologized for walking away without making sure she knew where I was, and asked her how it made her feel. She said she was scared, but she was also angry because grown ups were looking at her but no one offered to help her.
She said, “I was weeping and trying to be unnoticeable and people were looking at me and not one grown up came up and said to me ‘Hello Child I will wait with you until your mother returns’. Not one person came to be my helper. You told me helpers would always come, but you were the only one who came for me. You told me to always look for helpers, and I was LOOKING these people right in the EYE and they looked at me like I was dirt.”

This made me cry. Just last week, I had promised my daughter helpers would always come when bad things happened. Just last week the entire country was talking about the helpers who came to action in extraordinary circumstances.

A lost, crying child in a large store is not an extraordinary circumstance. Had a stranger been talking to her, I would not have thought they were trying to harm or abduct her. I would have thought, “Thank goodness someone is acting like a neighbor and looking after my girl until I could get back to her.” I would smile at the stranger, shake their hand, and say thank you. There was a time when we used to do this kind of thing for each other.

I told my daughter I couldn’t change how the people had reacted to her today, but that I could continue to do what I always do when I find a lost or scared child:
1. I kneel down, smile, and tell them my name.
2. I ask their name, and their mom and dad’s name.
3. I ask if I can help them find their family.
4. I extend my hand, offer a hug, and look for Customer Service or security. Then I ask another nearby shopper to alert staff, while I stay put with the child and wait for a wide-eyed and frantic parent to come tearing around the corner. I’ve been that parent. I treat their child like I would want mine to be treated.

I hope the next time you are out shopping, and you see a young child who looks frightened or in need of help, you are the helper they need in that moment.

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A long (and great!) conversation followed this post on facebook. Several people wondered why Amelia, known for being independent and strong voiced, didn’t ask someone for help or approach an employee. Those are good questions! That is something we have taught our children to do.

With a degree in criminology, five years spent in criminal investigations and two years in Search & Rescue, my experience has taught me that kids who are lost and scared do not always act the way they are taught. This is why they need the helpers. Do what your comfort level allows, whether that is sitting with the child and holding a little hand until a parent comes, or finding a store employee after you go up to the child and say, “You look like you need help, I’m going to get help for you.”

Many people suggested perhaps the onlookers were acting as guardian angels, looking over her until her family returned. That is a comforting thought, but I don’t think it is a fit for this specific circumstance. When my acute and articulate child says to me, “I was LOOKING these people right in the EYE and they looked at me like I was dirt”, I don’t get the feeling she had guardian angels who were standing by to make sure she was okay. It you take the protective bystander approach, do so with a smile, please. Smiles mean a lot to scared children.

A couple of commentors brought up the Kitty Genovese story and “bystander effect.” For those who don’t know the larger story of Kitty Genovese, at least a dozen people observed portions of a brutal stabbing and rape that took place within a 100 feet of Kitty’s apartment door in NYC 1964. During the first stabbing Kitty screamed out that she had been stabbed and needed help. One neighbor yelled “Let that girl alone” but did nothing further. Kitty ran to the front of her building, her assailant returned to stab her again and rape her. She had defense wounds on her hands and arms, suggesting she fought for her life while neighbors heard and saw this go on. Two men out of the estimated 12 observers called the police, but it was too late, and Kitty died en route to the hospital.
I find her story haunting.

I want us to be a better society that what Amelia and Kitty experienced (at obvious ends of the spectrum, thank god). I want us, when we see someone in need, to ask “How can I be of service to this person?” Last week while Amelia was getting a haircut a toddler darted away from his dad and tried to get out of the door, steps away from the parking lot where in this particular spot cars (and buses) drive by quickly. I put my hand on his tummy, closed the door with my other hand and firmly but kindly said, “You need to wait for your daddy.” The dad let out a sigh of relief and thanked me very much. This morning one of Amelia’s classmates had been pushed down in the wet and muddy grass by an older, bigger student. I took the time to wipe away her tears, hold her in a hug for several minutes, wipe her muddy palms on my pants, and then offered to bring her dry tights from Amelia’s drawer as hers were now wet and muddy. It took a total of fifteen minutes from my day. I’m not an extraordinary person, I’m just a person who treats other people’s children as I would want to have mine treated. I think it makes the world a better place.

I’ve had other experiences like those told in the thread, when the parent is rude or belligerent to you while you try to help their child. Several men expressed their hesitation because of the automatic presumption by many that they are predators because of their sex. I emphasize with that concern, and find it unfair that one half of our society is considered a potential threat.

The fear of rejection or being on the receiving end of rudness from a (probably) embarrassed and scared parent doesn’t stop me from doing the right thing. As grown ups we can handle a little rudeness and rejection. What I wouldn’t be able to handle is the knowledge that something happened to a child (or anyone) when I could have easily stepped in to help.

Be a helper.

Tricky People, Tummy Voices, and Trusting Strangers

As many of you know, my family has spent the past 18 months in some drama-rama while we were stalked by a neighbor. The situation has been handled, with much thanks to our city’s police department and courthouse personnel. While it was going on, one of the things that scared my husband and I was that our kids knew our stalker – his name and where he lived (two doors down). He wasn’t a “stranger”, my kids saw him nearly every day. This was both a blessing and a curse, but it is exactly why I’ve never taught my children Stranger Danger.

During the entire ordeal, we called the suspect the “Creeper”. After the night he tried to break in, Benny changed the name to “Robberness Creeper”. Every time I spoke to the police (kids were almost always present, and it was many times) I referred to the suspect both by his name and by “Robberness Creeper”. I had my kids shake the police officer’s hand and talk directly to the police about what they saw and their “tummy voices” (intuition).
I consciously made the kids active participants in their safety, instead of victims of a crime. To their credit, the police were wonderfully wonderful with the kids. But in this situation, the police officers were strangers to my kids, and the Robberness Creeper was someone they had become familiar with.
While child abduction by a stranger are simultaneously horrific and sensationalized, they are rare. Very rare. We need to give our kids practical, smart safety guidelines to follow. I love what is covered in this blog post and the highlighted website (I agree with 98% of the website). I think these guidelines have a base rooted in critical thinking about personal safety that extends well beyond the childhood years.
I’ve been asked to explain what “tummy voices” are — It is a term Amelia came up with, but we talked about the feeling of knowing something or someone is unsafe. Like the feeling right before going down a really big slide for the first time, or swinging high on a swing and thinking about jumping off — that should I/shouldn’t I voice. Or taking a walk and thinking about a mean dog, just when a neighbor’s dog rushes to their fence and starts to bark, that is a “tummy voice”. She described it as her head feeling “fizzy” and her tummy having a voice — and when you think about the biophysical effects fear has on the body, she is spot on.
The word “intuition” or “instinct” doesn’t mean anything to a preschooler who pretty much lives day to day on instinct. But preschoolers have some of the strongest tummy voices around because they don’t rationalize like adults do, they just observe and feel.
In the end, we took our Robberness Creeper to court, got a restraining order, his family moved him out, and we haven’t seen him since. During all of this, the police officers, court clerks, bailiff, lawyer, and judge were all strangers to my children. And every single one of them had my children’s safety and best interest at heart. It was the man we knew who was a danger.

I’ll Show You Mine, If You Show Me Yours

Little kids like to get naked. They giggle and goof off when naked, and naked is normal and beautiful.  My own children are both notorious nudists, often in public and often for my highest level of embarrassment. They’ve done normal naked stuff, like some impromptu skinny dipping while hiking around a lake and some spur-of-the-moment streaking around the neighborhood, with their mother and a bath towel in hot pursuit.

Needless to say, my children are more than comfortable in their birthday suits. But they also have limits. They have been taught the rules of their body (I’ll share these at the end of the post), the proper names of their body parts, and what is and isn’t appropriate. Both my husband and I feel comfortable talking to our kids about the human body and sex, although we really haven’t had much of the sex talk yet, as the kids are six and four years old. I get a lot of comments and questions from parents on how to approach this topic with kids, so I wanted to share a conversation we had at bath time the other night. This isn’t about scaring kids with the topic of sex abuse, it is about empowering them so they are less likely to become a victim.

Last fall Amelia (6yo) experienced a traumatic incident at the doctor when a nurse who was fed up said said she would rip down Amelia’s pants and stick her with the needle that held the immunization we had come to get. Amelia, having been taught the rules of her body, wouldn’t have it. Things did not go well that morning, and a couple of days later her now-former pediatrician had the audacity to say that if Amelia wasn’t so uptight about her body and I hadn’t taught her so much, this would have gone a lot easier for the nurses and the rest of us. Because you know, we should parent our kids in ways that make life easier for other folks.

I’m actually a big fan of preparing our children for life, in ways that are honest and respectful of their intelligence. So I wanted to share this convo, because when you talk like this often and openly, your kids grow with a really good sense of owning their bodies and using their voice.

“Mom, when I was playing with Friend, she showed me her gina,” Amelia announces out of the blue.

“Oh yeah? What were you girls playing?” I ask, trying not to sound too interested, or reveal any emotion.

“Nothing. We weren’t playing anything. She just showed it to me,” Amelia shrugged.

“Oh, huh. What did she do after she showed it to you?” I ask.

“She giggled,” Amelia informed me.

“Oh, was Friend trying to be silly?” I ask, not sure where this is going to go. “So what did you do, after she showed you her vagina and she giggled?”

“I told her it made me feel uncomfortable, and she needed to stop and put clothes on,” Amelia said. 

“I think that is a good answer. Did she ask you to show your body? Did your tummy voice tell you anything?” I ask.

“No. I told her I didn’t want to play that way. I said it was inappropriate,” Amelia says, and she seems pretty calm and relaxed and was making eye contact with me.

“Well, that’s a good answer. What room were you in when Friend did this? Were you going potty together, or changing clothes?’ I try to gather more details.

“We were in the house and just playing. Maybe I should have told you sooner?” Amelia asks, now trying to process things a bit more. It is tough to get a straight story from little kids, which is why it is so important to stay calm and ask open ended questions.

“Well, I’m really glad you are telling me now. I like when you talk to me, and I’m glad that you remember you won’t ever get in trouble with Mommy or Daddy for telling us something. So maybe next time we play with Friend, you can just say a reminder that clothes need to stay on,” I suggest, fairly certain the girls were just changing clothes for dress up and nothing scandalous happened. We know this family very well, and at this point in the convo I feel this was age-appropriate little kid nakedness and giggling.

“Oh hey, Smalls. So I just wanted to say, a friend or grown up should never touch your vagina or your bottom or your boobie spots. And they should never ask you to touch their bodies, or their private parts. Or, like maybe if your playing with a friend, you should never touch privates with hands or toys, okay?” I say while drying Benny off with a towel, him nodding in agreement with me.

“Oh my God, Mom, you are so gross,” Amelia says.

“Yeah anb you nebber feed your penie to dogs or alligators,” offers Benny.

“Right, Benny. Well, I think we’ve got this covered then. Thanks for talking to me, Smalls,” I wrap the convo up, confident my kids know their boundaries, and will never feed their genitals to dogs or swamp creatures.

Here’s what I want parents to take away from this story:

1. Please, please get comfortable talking to your kids about their bodies, private parts, and sex. You might need to get honest with yourself and move past some issues you may have in order to have this ongoing and evolving conversation with your child. Do that.

2. Please, please teach your children about their bodies, the correct names of their body parts, what appropriate and inappropriate touches are, and their right to say no. They are little kids, so they might say the words a bit differently than you do (“bagina” instead of vagina and vulva), but be consistent with how you refer to body parts.

3. Please, please get honest about the fact that these inappropriate touches 90% of the time come from people the child will know and consider safe. This person can be another child or playmate. Your child must know that he or she will never be in trouble for being honest with you.

4. When a situation happens that is uncomfortable to talk about, get uncomfortable and talk about it. Allow your kids to express their emotions, and ask questions about what happened. Ask questions that are opened ended, require more than “yes” or “no”, but do not include the answer in the question (“So what happened then, he didn’t ask you to touch him, right?” Don’t lead the child with your questions). Help them interpret their actions and the actions of the others involved. Their being a child does not diminish their rights.

5.  YOU are your child’s biggest advocate. You are their voice in situations they cannot fully understand. Children see the world differently than we do. Show them respect and see things from their eye level. Use your voice to stand up for them. It will teach your child they are worth fighting for, and that you speak up and speak out when something doesn’t feel right or is unjust.