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The People We Know May Hurt Us More Than Strangers

By: David Mandel 

Published in the Hamodia, October 17, 2007

How many conversations on safety related issues did we have with our children before they left for camp? Please don't hitchhike or take any rides with strangers. Be careful where you swim; always stay near a buddy. Watch out for poison ivy. Don't go near the bears. Promise me you won't drive in the mountains, or travel with inexperienced or wild drivers. Have a great time in camp, but don't... but don't... 

This past summer had its share of tragedies, R"l, in the Catskills as well as in Eretz Yisrael. Several young people died in car accidents with several near catastrophes on the roads and in the water; hikers were lost on mountain trails, among others. And many of us heard stories of young men and women, teenagers, involved in immoral and illegal activities.  

How does this all fit in with our constant reminders to our children to be careful and safe? 

An incident in Boro Park several weeks ago involving the abduction of a young girl and a similar circumstance last year in Queens involving several young teenage girls underscore the imperative of teaching our children issues of safety. How, when and what we say may help determine how safe our children will be. 

Do we speak of safety-related issues throughout the year, or do we emphasize them in late June when our children are ready to leave, excited about camp and not paying too much attention to us? Do we incorporate examples into everyday life or only reference them when there's a crisis? Do we have these conversations in a constructive and instructive way so our children can learn and apply the message, or do we try to frighten them into submission? "You see, this is what happens when you don't..." 

These questions are relevant and appropriate to explore with our children as we begin a new school year, as we lay a foundation for learning new skills, and as our children take on new responsibilities. 

Children learn through principles of repetition, generalization and reasoning, as is seen in teaching the alef-beis. By the time a three-year-old begins to learn the alef-beis and ABS s/he has seen and heard these letters and sounds in his/her crib, carraige and playpen for months. It's the repitition of sounds and sights that we rely on to help our children learn the letters, connect them into words and eventually master reading and writing. 

Generalization is a byproduct of learning a skill or a principle and applying it more broadly to other areas. For example, consider how we teach our children the concept of danger. 

We begin by keeping babies away from a flight of steps in our home, then teaching youngsters about the dangers of a stove or matches, clutching their hands when crossing a street, transitioning from a tricycle to a two-wheeler, to the ultimate safety issue for a young man or woman, driving a car. 

Just as a child can form letters into words and sentences, so too can a child generalize and apply lessons of the danger of a stove and crossing a street to other life experiences. 

There are subjects where these transitions have been more difficult, since they are delicate and require an individualized approach based on the child's age and maturity level. But that does not excuse us, as parents, from doing our utmost to help our children understand how they can protect themselves from unwanted touch and what they should do if they are victimized. 

The problem of personal safety is especially complex because it is counterintuitive. It is not solely from the stranger that we need to teach our children to take measures to protect themselves; it is the person they may already know. The derech eretz we worked so hard to instill in our children at home and in cheder run contrary to the notion of avoiding danger from a beloved family member, friend or a respected community member. Reasoning and rational expectations of a six, ten, or sixteen year old are not to worry that a person they implicitly trust will explicitly hurt them. 

So how then can we deal with unfortunate experiences in our community of our children being victimized by neighbors, friends, counselors, or older siblings - and, sadly enough, by a parent, grandparent, morah, or rebbi? 

Baruch Hashem, the extent of these experiences are relatively small as a percentage of our population. But even if we "only" have a few dozen of these situations reported every year, consider that a larger number go unreported for fear of shame and stigma which the reader understands without the benefit of a fuller description here. 

One important answer is to teach our children more directly the issue of personal safety from the beginning. Dr. Susan Schulman, a well-respected pediatrician in Brooklyn, describes it in the following way: "You should talk to your children when they go to kindergarten, and then again when they go to camp, and then again when they go to sleepaway yeshivah, and so on." 

OHEL's work in the community reveals the tragic fact that what is true in the general population occurs within our heimishe community as well, on a smaller scale. Children being hurt by strangers happens less than 0% of the time; conversely, in 80% of these occurences, the child is hurt by a person s/he knows and trusts, and often a person close to them. Therefore, teaching our children the dangers of not talking to or opening a dorr to a stranger is not enough. In using the episode in Boro Park of a stranger abduction, a child will not be able to generalize this information from stranger danger to friendly danger, as this reasoning is the opposite of what we as parents teach them, that is, to respect and to trust relatives, close friends, and role models. 

Every parent knows his/her child best and will now which words to use to explain this difficult concept. You  must find the right balance of being descriptive without frightening the child. Use easy to understand examples. Don't be too abstract. Recreate an example from your child's storybook or from an event your child can relate to. Answer your child's questions in a way s/he can understand. It is best if the child learns this information from you. 

Children are very resilient, often more so than adults. The overwhelming majority of children who are victimized will, b'ezras Hashem, move on and grow to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. A small percentage of children and adolescents will require extensive counseling, which should be done by a professional with a specialty in this area. There are a limited number of such professionals in our community.   

Parents should strive to instill in their child an understanding and belief to seek out and speak with parents about any unpleasant situation s/he experiences. A child must know s/he has a warm, nurturing support system to turn to in times of crisis. 

In a future issue, we hope to present important tools that all parents should develop for dealing with their children's ordinary and not so ordinary problems.  

May Hashem continue to watch over all our children to protect them from all harm.   

 

  

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