In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Danger and the impossibility of preparedness

Dear Aunt Debbie,

A student at my school was hit and killed by a drunk driver on Friday night, a block away from home.  He was going home a little late after hanging out with his school friends at the Board Game club he started this year -- his senior year.  I didn't know him, but by all accounts he was a sweet, dedicated, hard-working kid.  He'd just gotten into college.  I teach a number of seniors, so classes today were part English, part grief counseling.  Stuyvesant is a huge school; not everybody knew him.  That is part of the grief.

So many what-ifs in this kind of situation.  If he had been one minute earlier or one minute later, he wouldn't have been standing on that median when the van swerved and crashed into him.  And yet it's the kind of situation you can't prepare against.  Here was a kid who did everything right, who wasn't acting in a way that should have put him in danger in the slightest.  And yet.

Becoming a parent is on some level laying yourself open to the possibility of unimaginable loss at any moment.  There is so much more in the game.  And so you're faced with the question (among millions of other questions) of how to prepare against tragedy in as many ways as you can.

Last summer, a 9-year-old boy in our neighborhood, walking home alone from camp for the first time in his life, got lost and was kidnapped and killed the next day by the man he asked for directions.  Both the boy and the man were Hasidic Jews; the boy had been told to approach someone obviously from his community if he needed help.  The one man he chose just turned out to be crazy in the most horrific way.

In the weeks after this horrendous crime, our neighborhood listserves lit up with discussion of how to prepare children against abuse and kidnapping, how to teach them about how to engage with strangers and the world around them.  The book cited most often was Gavin De Becker's Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane).  I put it on my library hold list immediately (as, apparently, did every other parent in Brooklyn), and received and read it a few weeks ago.

De Becker's title is a reference to his other big book,  The Gift of Fear.  In both, he argues that true fear is a gift, and that we need to trust our instincts in order to protect ourselves and our children.  Unwarranted fear, on the other hand, is paralyzing, and can make us blind to the signals of real danger.

I found Protecting the Gift both frightening and useful reading.  De Becker takes you through all of the ways in which your child might be preyed upon, by kidnapping strangers (he stresses that this is the most rare, though also the most highly feared), by abusive caretakers, by abusive family members and friends (sadly, the most likely scenario, though also the most willfully ignored).  He provides examples of letters to pediatricians, daycare facilities, and schools which request specific information about safety procedures and staff background checks, and encourages frank discussion of difficult subjects.

De Becker's discussion of why "Don't Talk to Strangers" is a terrible piece of advice to give your children was particularly interesting.  He argues that this is confusing to kids. Children may hear this message on the one hand from their parents, but on the street we ask our kids to talk to strangers every day: respond politely to the person who says hello, or makes a comment on the toy you're dragging around with you everywhere.  What we should be doing, he says, is training our kids to assess who is safe to approach if they need help, and who is not.  His simplest advice?  Teach your kids to approach a woman for help, particularly a woman with children.  Statistically, this is the safest thing to do.

There's a lot in this book about teenage safety, and how to talk with your kids about sexual abuse; how to make sure they know they can talk to you about anything, and that you will hear and believe them.  It's a book I feel I might return to when Eleanor and Isabel are a little older.

There's a fine line between seeing danger everywhere and knowing that, while danger might be everywhere, you need to live your life without letting that knowledge consume you.  On a day like today, I feel consumed.  Also, terribly lucky.

Love, Annie


  1. How very sad. When I was in high school, a very kind student was killed in a horrific horseback riding accident. She was wearing a helmet, working with a trainer in a ring. It was the kind of thing that was no one's fault, and that was haunting.

    As a mom, I struggle with teaching my daughter to live without fear while keeping her safe. I've never told her not to talk to strangers -- in fact, I encourage her to return people's hellos -- but I do warn her never to go anywhere with a stranger, even if they tell her I said it was ok. The advice to approach a woman with children for help is good -- I may check out the book you discuss.

    Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful post.

  2. As a Stuy Alum, this is the first that I'm hearing about this. I'm not friends with nearly enough of the current Stuy seniors that it would have shown up in my newsfeed on facebook (which, honestly, has been my main source for this kind of news). I much prefer finding out from you, even inadvertently.

    Because Stuyvesant is such a large school, the chances of a community member dying are extremely high. Three students died while I attended Stuyvesant - one of whom was, as you know, my best friend. What are the odds?

    Anyway - my point is that I appreciate the way you handled discussing this topic: by focusing on how people can try to stay safe without being afraid all the time. It made it a lot easier for me.