Keep Your Child Safe: Direct Them To Women If Lost

In Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) Gavin De Becker writes of the safety rule–for children–described as ‘If you are ever lost, go to a policeman”:

Here’s another popular rule that rarely enhances safety….All identifying credentials…are above the waist….A young child cannot tell the difference between a police officer and a security guard….I don’t believe in teaching inflexible rules because it’s not possible to know they’ll apply in all situations. There is one, however, that reliably enhances safety. Teach children that if they are ever lost, Go to a woman.

Why? First, if your child selects a woman, it’s highly unlikely that the woman will be a sexual predator….Next…a woman approached by a lost child asking for help is likely to stop whatever she is doing, commit to that child, and not rest until the child is safe….The fact is that men in all cultures and at all ages and at all times in history are more violent than women.

This is a pretty damning piece of advice, resting on an equally damning evidentiary foundation. Think about it: when giving advice to your child on how to look for help when they are lost, you don’t need to specify–in your directive to your child that they approach a woman for help–a policewoman, an older woman, a younger woman, a black woman, a white woman. Any of these will be, on the odds, safer than any man you could specify as a type. Look for a woman; you will be guaranteed that you will find a ‘safer human being’ than a man. An escaped female convict or criminal of some kind might be more dangerous than many men, but the relevant odds still make it the case that the advice under consideration retains its rationality. Look for a woman, and you are at least partially on your way to safety. There are no guarantees, of course. Women rob, rape, and kill too; but we act on the basis of probabilities and the probability is that your child–if helplessly looking for succor–will be safer with a woman than with a man.

I’m not sure how men, as a gender, can, need, or should respond to this kind of claim; it isn’t clear to me what form such a response could take. Still, at the least, this should induce some kind of reckoning–men have, through their actions over the years, made themselves into the more dangerous gender. I read the passage above as a parent, and I did not hesitate to internalize its advice and transmit it to my daughter. She knows, that if she is ever lost, she should go looking for someone that looks ‘like a mommy.’ That was the only specificity we could add to the advice and we qualified it with ‘if you don’t find a mommy, find a girl.’ We still did not tell her to approach a man, and the fact is, we won’t. It’s just too dangerous to tell my child to ever trust any kind of male stranger; even if she is lost. She should hold out for a woman.

A Familiar Sight, Both Pleasurable And Reassuring

My family and I have gone hiking on several occasions. While on them, a general pattern emerges–I normally walk ahead of my wife and daughter. When my daughter was a toddler, though she did walk for some short stints, at most times my wife carried her on her back in an Ergo carrier; now my daughter walks on by herself for the entire trail. In the ‘old days,’ my daughter often required some persuasion to continue; such persuasion was more charitably and kindly dispensed by my wife; as such, she became the primary caretaker during a hike. Moreover, because my daughter would not let me carry her, a straightforward manifestation of her preference of her mother’s caretaking, my wife also became the primary carrier and beast of burden. (Her child-carrying feats evoked many cries of admiration from fellow hikers who were battling the switchbacks in Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada in the summer of 2015; my daughter was then three and a half years old, and weighed in at a hefty thirty-five pounds.)

And so, on the trail, we set off together, but a gap slowly emerges between the two ‘groups.’ As it grows, I stop to let my companions catch up; sometimes I cannot even hear their voices behind me, and though the silences and the calm of the woods and the slopes are especially calming and thought-provoking, I still hanker for the familiar pleasures of hearing my wife and my child talking to each other. Somewhere deep within me is buried the fear that we will lose each other; that my wife and daughter will wander off into some cul-de-sac; that the prudent thing for me to do is to continue to provide them close company. So I cease motion; I take off my backpack, and rest on a boulder or tree stump. I look back along the trail, waiting for them to hove into view. If the gap has grown, it may take a minute or two before I can hear them again; it certainly takes a while before I can spot them again. Sometimes they are obscured by the woods; sometimes by the curvature and the bends and twists and turns of the landscapes.

Then, finally, as I hear my daughter’s high-pitched voice grows louder, I see them emerge from the woods, make the turn around the bend, up the path, through the trees. They see me, and our expressions light up in unison; we are happy and, yes, relieved to see each other. Sometimes, having spotted them, I move on; sometimes, we all stop for a break. We swap stories of what we have seen and heard; we know we move through the same landscape but our experiences are quite different.

It never gets old; that complex feeling, when I see my wife and daughter reappear, of a quiet happiness tempered with a relief that has grown in response to the tiniest of terrors. Here, in the wilderness, we are happy to be with each other again–even if only momentarily separated. We realize, thanks to that particular and peculiar reminder that only the wilderness can provide, of just how much we mean to each other.

Parental Anxiety And Its True Subject

In ‘What The Childless Fathers of Existentialism Teach Real DadsJohn Kaag and Clancy Martin write:

Why do we put limits on our children? Why is a daughter not allowed to climb that tree or jump across a river?…Why are neither daughters nor sons allowed to run away? Father knows best….virtually all fathers think that they are operating in their child’s best interests, but we have been at this long enough to know, if we are honest or authentic, that most of us protect our children, at least in part, because we are avoiding or coming to grips with our own Kierkegaardian anxiety. The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us. [link added.]

Kaag and Martin’s insight here is available to most parents by the briefest of introspections: examine your feelings as your child comes to harm, or even approaches it; pay close attention; what you are averse to is that terror you experienced when you first let the full range of possibilities that awaited your child fully sink in. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ we say, but sotto voce, we continue, ‘Because I don’t ever want to feel like that again.’

Interestingly enough, I had an inkling of this aspect of parenthood as a child, when I witnessed my mother’s reaction to my brother after he had injured himself at the playground:

My mother’s face blanched as she saw my brother’s face. But she said nothing as she raced to the medicine cabinet and returning with cotton wool swabs, a mug of water, and some antiseptic solution, quickly got to work. She efficiently cleaned and wiped and medicated. And then, one of her swipes revealed that the blood on the face did not conceal a gouged out eye. My brother had not been blinded; he had gotten away with a cut above the eye.

At this point, my mother slapped my brother. It wasn’t a hard blow; but a stinger across the cheek, nonetheless. My brother, quietly undergoing the patchwork till then, stared back at my mother, astonished and hurt….Watching this little drama go down, I wasn’t puzzled at all. My mother must have been petrified when I had brought my brother home late, a bloody mess. She loved us, powerfully, a love that often racked her with deep fears that we might ever be hurt in any way. But she had suppressed every other reaction of hers in favor of immediately providing succor to him. With the most immediate wounds cleaned and shown to be non-threatening, her relief had combined with the anger she had felt at my brother for subjecting her to that terrible anxiety.  That slap followed. I felt sorry for my brother but I felt for my mother too. I knew why she had snapped. And slapped.

Perhaps I’m overstating the knowledge I possessed at the moment, but not by too much. I was about seven or so years old and I had had ample opportunity to study my mother’s  interactions with us. Her anxiety about us was transparent in action and word; as mine about my daughter is to me now.

Standing Back And Letting The World And The Child Do Their Thing

Last summer, I met an old graduate school friend after several years. We chatted and exchanged notes about the intervening years and all the issues that had consumed us in that interim: finding an academic position, the dreaded tenure and promotion process, writing, and of course, bringing up children. Because I came to fatherhood late, we found ourselves talking about very different phases of parenting. At one stage in our conversation, while talking about her teenaged son, she remarked that she had been struck by how–after a certain age, perhaps as early as five or six, her son had, in a manner, grown up on his own with little ‘direct input’ from her; she had watched, in some amazement, as her awkward little boy, thanks to his own peculiar and particular interactions with the world around him, and consumed by his own curiosity and drive, had blossomed into a supremely interesting and ‘switched-on’ young man. She had brought him into this world, but he had built his own relationship with it, found his space within it and partaken of its many offerings, utilizing them in his life as needed, bringing to fruition his own interests and desires. (Forgive me, ‘J,’ if I’m not reproducing your observations with the appropriate fidelity.)

I listened with great interest. I realized that, as part of a thought related to some observations I offered here about parenting, I had often hoped for the world to ‘support’ my parenting; that, exhausted and anxious about whether I was ‘doing it right,’ I had worried that my partner and I were not going to be able to do this bringing-up thing by ourselves; we needed help. What ‘J’ had been experiencing and reporting on to me, was precisely that kind of ‘help.’ For the right place to look for aid with our parenting, for support in our efforts to ‘raise’ our child as best as we could, was at our child herself and the world she encountered: what she would do on her own, in the world she saw and experienced, with her own perspectives and orientations and interests. ‘J’s observations resonated with the kinds of statements I had heard other parents make: they were often amazed and surprised by what their children ‘brought home’ with them, by what they had learned on their own, and indeed, how they had broadened their parents’ horizons in so doing.

It’d be entirely dishonest of me to say I experienced anything other than relief at hearing ‘J’s remarks. Perhaps there was some hope in this parenting business after all; perhaps I didn’t need to be so intimidated and oppressed by the thought that I would transmit my dysfunctionalities and incompetences to my child; perhaps I needed to wait and watch as much as I needed to intervene and guide; perhaps, to let myself be guardedly optimistic as well consumed by my usual despondency, I should prepare myself for the pleasant surprises that await me as a result of the forthcoming interactions between my daughter and the world we’ve brought her into.

Some Parental Wisdom, Easily Dispensed

I’ve been a parent now for some 1281 days. In that time, I’ve learned a few things and been disabused of many misconceptions. Here is a potted summary:

  1. Parents are important, but they aren’t the only game in town. Your child is being exposed to a great deal else: other children (the dread ‘peer group’); non-family caretakers (daycare workers, school teachers); the sights and sounds of your neighborhood; the rhythms of your household and the relationships it contains. Your child takes all of this in, and her reactions to it all help construct her self and her experience of her life. Do not fall for the bullshit notion that your relationship with your child is the most important of its life or yours; it’s one among many. This can be both frightening and empowering; keep these in balance. If you can.
  2. Your child will always remain a mystery to you; and you, in turn, will remain a mystery to your child. Do not try to know more or possess more; recognize and respect the limits of this relationship. Think iceberg; think how much happens away from view, hidden in inaccessible recesses of body and mind. Deal with this epistemic barrier.
  3. Remember your own childhood; remember that you had a sense of your life that was quite independent of your parent’s conception of it. Remember the distance between your life and your parent’s; that same distance exists now.  Do not try to make your child learn everything about you; do not try to learn everything about your child.
  4. For fathers: mothers have a distinctive relationship with their children. Respect its specialness, its distinctiveness, derived from a very particular physical bond, further cemented in some cases, by extended, intimate, nurturance.  Do not be grasping; do not be envious; do not strive for that relationship. It is what it is; leave it alone. You have your own relationship with your child; find out what about it is peculiar and particular in its own way, and help develop that aspect on an ongoing basis.
  5. Human beings are difficult; relationships with them are challenging and prickly. Your child is a human being; and it is all too easy to imagine you have some special understanding of its needs by virtue of some special talent. You do not; you have to work as hard as anyone else. Recognize that you will often be left floundering for help as you deal with your child, trapped in morasses of your own making, unable to safely navigate treacherous shoals of misunderstanding, resentment, and emotional confusion.
  6. You will always compare your child to other children; no matter how much you are told to accept your child as it is, you won’t. But that’s because you don’t accept yourself for what you are either; so understand that acceptance of your child will become a little easier if you are a little more accepting of yourself. Otherwise you will project your failures onto your child. Don’t go there. Leave your child out of it.

I don’t have a top ten list. Six of the best is good enough for now.

On Being Protected By My Father

Around the time my father retired from his military service, he decided to build a home on the then-still-developing outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi. We bought a small plot of land, hired a contractor, and work began. We–my mother, my brother, and I–occasionally accompanied my father on his many trips to inspect the progress of this new home’s construction. (Fate would ensure we never spent a night there.) On those occasions, my father often also made trips to a nearby market to buy supplemental construction materials requested by the contractor. On one such shopping trip, I accompanied him as he drove there. I was nine (or ten.)

Some of the particulars of what happened that afternoon are a little foggy after all these years, but not its most important details. For some reason, after we had arrived at our destination, my father and I were separated–he went to a shop to buy the required materials; I returned to our car to pick up something. After doing so, I turned to cross the street to return to the shop where my father waited. The street was busy with pedestrian and vehicular traffic, as most streets in the market of a small Indian town usually are. As I began maneuvering my way through the various obstacles in my path, a young man riding a bicycle decided it was time for a little fun at my expense. He rode up right next to me, prompting me to take a sharp step back. As I did so, he moved the wheel of the bike in my direction, so that it seemed like I would be run down again. Now, I moved forward, but he changed direction again, once again moving at me, even as I skipped back. He seemed to be enjoying this little game at my expense. I moved back, he followed me, and this time, we could not avoid a collision. I stumbled, fell, and tried to stand up, even as I cast a hurt and reproachful look at this grown-up bully–who had been grinning all this while. To this day, I do not know why he picked me, or that location, for this stupid and dangerous ‘game.’

My tormentor had just committed a ghastly error. My father had been watching this bizarre behavior from across the street.

Even as a small group of people gathered around me to help me and to reprimand the man on the bike, my father had arrived on the scene–as quickly as he could. As he did so, he caught hold of the miscreant. And slapped him once, hard, right across the face. I had been slapped sharply by my father as occasional punishment for miscellaneous offenses in the past; I had never witnessed such a violent or powerful blow. The force of it snapped the man’s face to the right. With the back of his hand, my father slapped him again, this time snapping his head back to the left. Blood ran from the man’s nose; he looked dazed. My father did not speak; there was little need to. The surrounding gaggle of onlookers moved in to rescue his now hapless ‘victim,’ even as they tried to restrain my father–not physically, for I doubt he could have been so restrained, nor would he have appreciated a hand laid on him at that moment; instead, they urged my father to show mercy. Perhaps my father too, decided a lesson had been taught and learned.

I was dazed by the suddenness and violence of what I had just witnessed; by this frightening and exhilarating demonstration of my father’s power and strength. I knew he was a stern man, capable of strict discipline and of dramatic impositions of authority. He had fought two wars, sent men to their death, and scornfully resisted ‘chickenshit‘ officers who had tried to order him around. But I doubted if he had ever been as overcome by anger as he seemed to me at that moment. On that day, there was something about his display of anger and violence that remained mysterious even as I was grateful for his intervention. Now that I’m a father, it all seems so comprehensible; I was witnessing a father protecting his child.