How can parents protect children without obstructing their natural quest for independence?

Even though the rape of the physiotherapy student last December created a justifiable furore nationwide, our country, lamentably, remains unsafe for women and children. Since December, at least seven cases of rape on children have been reported in the nation’s capital alone; the latest being a five-year old girl who was abducted and abused by a neighbour.

Foremost, on every parent’s mind, is our children’s safety. Yet we cannot keep them under our watchful gaze 24/7 as this would stifle their development. How can parents protect children without thwarting their natural quest towards independence? America’s leading security specialist and expert on the management and prediction of violent behaviour, Gavin de Becker, has an impressive array of clients ranging from governments to the CIA, corporations to celebrities and women’s shelters to schools. He offers parents the following guidelines on how to keep children secure as they gradually navigate the world for themselves.

Firstly, parents must trust their intuition regarding safety. Nature, de Becker argues, has wired us with a primitive brain that can smell out danger. However, our “new brain,” as he refers to the logical and rational aspects of our mind, often ignores the warning signals picked up by our “old brain.” For example, your son, Ankit, has had a Maths tutor for the past eight months. From an ‘F’, the tutor, who says he gives tuition to cover his engineering college fees, has raised Ankit’s grade to a ‘B.’ The tutor has readily established rapport with 11-year old Ankit. When your son got his marks, he treated him to a movie. However, you suddenly feel uneasy as the two of them have now started going for movies regularly and, last week, the tutor took your son to a friend’s house to ‘chill’. You don’t approve of these rendezvous, but you are scared of antagonising Ankit and his tutor. What should do you do?

Are you responding to a gut instinct or are you engaging in typical parental anxiety? De Becker cautions that worry actually jeopardises our child’s safety. When we worry needlessly or feel fearful most of the time, “there is no signal left for when it’s really needed”. While worries are based on imagined or remembered events, our intuition kicks in when we are confronted by actual risks. When we feel uneasy, de Becker advises us to ask ourselves if we are “responding to something in the environment or to something in my imagination.” Whereas we worry in response to imagined or remembered events, our intuition is based on environmental cues.

Analysing the situation, you realise that the tutor is overstepping his role and you have a right to step in. You do not want your son ‘chilling’ with the tutor’s friends. Moreover, if the tutor gets offended when you curtail these interactions, then he is more likely to have dubious intentions. de Becker sagely tells parents that we should not fear offending others when our child’s safety is at stake.

He also questions the wisdom of the Red-Riding Hood dictum of not encouraging children to talk to strangers. Only by allowing our wards to talk to the waiter at a restaurant, the cashier at a shop and the receptionist at the dental clinic, can we equip children with people-reading skills so that they can sense discomfort or danger. Moreover, if a child gets lost at a mall or carnival, he is more likely to be able to try and find you if he seeks help as opposed to keeping quiet. Likewise, children and women in vulnerable situations should approach someone, preferably a woman, for help instead of waiting for someone to come to our aid. The chances that you or your child will pick a ‘shady’ character are much slimmer than a person with unsavoury intentions looking for susceptible people in sensitive situations.

Parents should avoid giving children blanket dictums like “You must always listen to elders”. In fact, our children are less vulnerable if they feel that they have a right NOT to listen to an adult’s instructions be it an uncle, teacher or coach if she feels uncomfortable; instead, your child should be able to speak to you about it. For most crimes where children are targets, like kidnapping and sexual molestation, the perpetrator typically has to take the child to another place to commit the crime; if the child refuses to accompany an adult, he should not later evoke your dismay. When we go to crowded places, we should have a contingency plan of meeting at a particular place if someone gets lost.

Finally, we shouldn’t make our kids too fearful or brazen as both extremes can prevent a child from responding to actual fear signals. We need to inform children of potential dangers without feeling that certain topics are taboo. However, we also need to shield them from the relentless onslaught of sensational television news whose graphic images can numb a child’s sensibilities.

In the recent past, the world has had its share of senseless violence. From bombings in Bangalore to Boston, and the rape of the little child in Delhi, our lives seem ever so fragile. In such volatile times, we need to have open channels of communication with our children. Even though we cannot shield them under our protective wings forever, it is mandatory that we equip children with lessons in safety.

Email: arunasankara@gmail.com