Warnings about “Tricky People” Don’t Stick with My Kids

When I haven’t blogged for a few weeks, it’s a pretty good sign that my brain is full. Lately it’s been full of miscellaneous Internal Medicine board recertification facts that will now slowly fade from the brain after the tortuous 8 hour exam. Thus the brain is clear to start fussing about other things.

For example, I’m starting to get that restless “time to move” feeling. We have been in a small townhome for almost two years and my need to stretch is tugging on me. More importantly, my concern about the neighborhood is growing steadily greater.

This week we had the “tricky adult” talk. Not the “this could happen” talk, but the “this did happen” talk. I talk to my boys about tricky adults and being safe pretty frequently. I also tell them to lift the toilet seat and to ask before sneaking a treat pretty frequently too, but that hasn’t gotten me very far. I know I’m going to go hoarse with the “stop whistling in the car” admonition. They don’t listen.

A sense of dread always comes over me when a particular father in the neighborhood approaches my door. He’s a nice guy and usually it’s about some skirmish his boys and mine are having. Sometimes it’s about who was swearing first. Sometimes it’s about the boys not sharing. This afternoon it was a question about whether I knew a man in a townhome a few doors down. “I’ve met him once,” I replied. “He’s the boyfriend of a mom I know from kid basketball and baseball.”

“Well, I just saw him give the boys candy in exchange for a hug,” he responded.

Boom.

Red Flag number one for grooming behavior of a sexual predator. Every warning signal going off in my body. Every Mama Bear siren firing. I calmly asked the boys to hand the candy over to me as they bounced home a few seconds later, lollipops hanging from their lips. I asked them to stay away from the house and we would talk later.

As we sat in the car before picking up the older boys for karate, I patiently explained the concept of “tricky people” again. How someone might ask you for a hug for candy, but the person is using candy to trick you. They might nicely do it two or three times. On time number four, they might say that the candy is inside the house or the car and please come inside to get some. I said to the boys, “Has Mr. V ever asked you for a hug? Has Mr. A ever asked you for a hug?” referring to the fathers of friends of ours in the neighborhood. “No,” they both replied. Good men do not ask children for a hug. You are not to hug someone that you don’t really know and never someone who is giving you candy to get a hug.

Later that night I chatted with a couple friends…..and then I made a police report. According to my neighbor who witnessed the event and spoke with the police the next day, the man denied touching the boys (of course) and stated that a bowl of candy is always available to anyone (news to me). The district attorney didn’t think there was enough evidence to continue the case, and the family in question is apparently moving out to a new home in a few days anyway (thank goodness). But in my mind, a relatively unknown man has touched my young children without my permission and when I wasn’t present.

My Mommy-heart worries for the three young children of the woman in that relationship. My Mommy-heart worries that for all of my warnings and admonitions my boys remain so easily seduced by sugar. My Mommy-heart worries that I won’t always be there or another caring parent won’t always be a witness and provide a safe extraction. And yet my Mommy-heart is thankful that the boys were not hurt, that it is an important story for us to keep telling and learning from, and that the community is watching out for each other. Parents are in this together.

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Have We Watered Down “Friends”?

A friend from high school stopped by a couple weeks ago. We haven’t seen each other in about 20 years, but our reunion hug was long and deep. A true friend. Which made me wonder about the friends my kids are developing?

I really thought about it when my mom returned from the parent-teacher association meeting recently about online safety.

“How was it?” I asked later that day.

“Scary,” she replied. Huh, I thought, that’s the same response my neighbor had when I asked her.

And they are right. It is scary. We know that children are being exposed to photos and information that is not appropriate. We know that our children are revealing too much personal information about themselves. We know that the number of child predators online is beyond comprehension (about half a million predators online every day). We know that at least 20% of all kids experience cyberbullying. We know that about 70% of all kids will “accept” a friend invitation whether or not they know the person.

Then it hit me. Do children these days actually know what a friend is? In my generation, a friend was someone you spent time with, someone that you enjoyed, someone with whom you did activities or sat beside and watched the clouds roll by. A friend was a human being in your physical social context. You have talked to your friend. You have shaken hands or hugged your friend. In those days, you knew your friend’s number and you talked to them.

Today, my children have had “friends” since they were a few months old in day care. Every other child in their class was a “friend.” “Good morning, friends.” “Play nice with your friends.” “Let’s open up our books, friends.” As they entered elementary school, the concept of all peers as friends continued to persist.

My question is, have we watered down the concept of friends to the extent that children assume everyone in their peer group is a friend. Thus, it makes sense to them that they might have hundreds of “friends” in an online space because “friends” are not necessarily people you know, but defined by someone else.

I asked my ten-year-old how many friends he has. His reply was “I have tons of friends. A whole bunch.” To me, though, he essentially has only one friend that he texts and plays Minecraft with and visits his home. The others are classmates and school peers.

So I’ve begun defining for him as he enters the online world that the only “friends” he is to have online are those that he also has a “real life” connection to. People he can touch. People he has spoken to and spent time with. People he actually knows.

It’s a scary world out there (even for me with viruses, hackers, identity theft and more a constant threat). Part of keeping kids safe is helping them navigate their social, electronic and digital experiences (I’m even contemplating using an “online contract“). And part of that is helping them identify and cultivate true “friends.”

(And I used to think parenting was easy….)

Building Wings

I walked away.

I might have peeked back, to be honest.

But I walked away.

My nod was the signal. I passed the middle child off.

What’s your name dude?

~Gavin.

Thanks for saying hi to my guy.

~I rode with him before.

They circled the course again, getting good air.

On deck, Gavin called Mr. Ornery’s name. He lined his bike up with the riders and sat.

A new tribe.

I walked away.

There is growth.  There is learning to be done.

Pump. Jump. Spin.

Confidence. Persistence. Technique.

That part is not my job.

My job is to let the little boy find his wings.

My job is to find the safe space and walk away.

My job…. is to hold myself in check and be able to walk away.

 

We need to create more Grateful Moments!

The bus was late. I was stressed. We were going to be late for the first gymnastics class. I parked the car across from the bus stop and waited. After they tumbled off, I hustled the boys over to the car and yelled, “Jump in! Get buckled!” As the bus was trying to make its busu-turn and I was clearly blocking its progress, I moved the car forward to the other side of the street. Super Tall Guy yelled out, “Mr. Ornery’s not in the car” (well, he used the middle kid’s real name, to be truthful). I stopped immediately, opened the car door and looked back about 20 feet behind me. My vision of Mr. Ornery in his bright orange shirt was blocked by an unknown car who had stopped right in front of him and the driver had jumped out to videotape or photograph my moment of stupidity.

And that’s what it was. A moment. Maybe 20 seconds. A moment when a hurried mother made a mistake. But thanks to the stranger, a police officer showed up at my door at 9:00 o’clock that night to interrupt bed-time routine and inform me of my stupidity. Fortunately, it was one of those awkward “warnings” about a “chaotic bus pick up?” and I agreed with him that yes, I was wrong. It was a lapse of judgement. But no one was hurt and I had not gone anywhere. My boys were safe and they were not traumatized. We had talked about the situation. All was fine.

Except my heart. My heart was sad that in this world, my first thought was – great! Some stranger is videotaping me and I’ll either “go viral” on social media or have a police citation.

My question is – why didn’t the stranger instead think to help. Maybe instead of blocking my view of my son, she might have taken my son’s hand and walked him to my car. We all would have said thank you and moved on with the day. It could have been a “grateful” moment.

Just five days before this, on the second day of school, a little 7-year-old got off the school bus with my boys. There was no parent waiting for him. I walked him to his house and we knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked on windows. Nothing. I called the management office of the community and they called the parents and tracked them down. I waited with this little boy for 10 minutes until his parents arrived. They thought he had gotten on the bus to day care rather than the bus home. It was a mistake.  A moment. I did not call and report the parents to the police. I helped.

Oh how I wish we could all be more helpful.

This week an elderly patient sat in my office. She wasn’t sure she wanted to return in two weeks to get her blood pressure rechecked because transportation was too difficult for her. And she didn’t have any one around to help her. She looked at me with eyes of sadness. “People tend to disappear once you get older or have a cane,” she lamented. “Nobody wants to help anyone anymore. Nobody cares anymore in this world. Everyone is just worried about their own self.”

A generalization yes, but also a reminder to me.

Let’s be more kind.

Let’s be more helpful.

Let’s think about what others might be going through and what we might do to help.

Let’s be a good neighbor and a loving friend.

Let’s create more grateful moments.

Love matters.

Bits of Trauma

It was a couple of small pops followed by some strange noises that I couldn’t decide if they were animal or human. It was 9:30 at night and I was walking the little dog a few doors down from our home in the “townhome” side of our rental community. The next morning, my neighbor asked if I heard the gunfire as I greeted him while taking the dog out again. My fears were confirmed when a friend from the township police department called to let me know there had been gunfire, broken window, and argument, but no arrests. “Probably drug related,” he suggested.

Gunshots in the apartment side of the community. Gunshots fired in the building adjacent to the playground where my children swing and slide and jump their bikes off any possible knoll. Gunshots that could be a stray bullet piercing one of my precious sons.

I immediately put in a call to the property management office for the boss to call me and sent an email. He called back later the following afternoon. He had no concern and certainly had no plan to address the issue. “I can’t control who people invite over,” he responded. “No, we won’t extend the fence line; that would be expensive.” “The police do patrol,” he answered – “never seen them patrol,” I argued – “well, it’s at random times.” (Hmmm, nope, no one in the neighborhood has ever seen them patrol either.) Every suggestion I made, he had no interest in. “I’ll pass your concerns to my supervisor,” he concluded. I informed him that I was “tremendously disappointed in your clear lack of concern for the safety of the people who live here and for the children.” And then I left a message for the regional manager; and I’m still waiting a return call.

You see, last Friday we got a “letter” in our mailboxes saying that of all the nerve, there have been reports of kids riding their bikes on these dead-end streets and that from now on, all children must be supervised at all times when playing outside. I didn’t see on that letter that there have been any reports of people driving faster than the posted 10mph while on the same streets as the kids, but I pretty happily give these drivers the universal “slow down” hand signals when they come cruising along. I’m just wondering why management in their wisdom doesn’t want to put out a letter to help the entire community feel safer about the recent gunfire “incident.”

So this weekend, I took it upon myself to personally say hello to my neighbors, ask if they heard about the “incident” and let them know that “management” doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. I am therefore asking each of them to be more vigilant and keep an eye out for each other. I am asking them to call the police immediately if they notice anything troubling. I am asking them to speak up if they have a concern.

My boys have heard these conversations. We’ve talked about it many times. We’ve set new boundaries for where they can play and ride their bikes. We’ve reviewed safety guidelines. They seem to be coping better than I am. For they have the great perspective of a protected child; they can look at the adults around them and feel safe and loved.

Probably what was more “traumatic” to Super Tall Guy this week is that he twisted his ankle jumping on a “Jump Pad” at a local corn maze. He hobbled around for the foot-bootafternoon complaining that he couldn’t have any fun. He crawled around the floor the next morning until his aunt dropped off a pair of crutches. Finally he succumbed to my urging to get it checked and he walked out of there in a boot with a nondisplaced avulsion fracture in the ankle. Yes, he will likely remember this weekend of me downplaying his pain while my head and heart were wrapped around the needs of the community.foot-broken

It takes a village, they always say. We live in a small “village” here. Apparently our “leaders” are much more interested in collecting rent checks than providing safety, but we shall continue on and do what we can to protect each other and support each other. And we as parents certainly are looking out for each other’s kids.

And yet I shall continue to look for a new house….while also making sure that I land in another “village” to wrap around us all.

Rescuing our kids with a secret “Extraction Code”

I would not consider myself to be a Helicopter Parent. In fact, unless you awaken Mama Bear, I’m probably more like Mama Bird – “here, honey, let me give you a little boot out of this little ol’ nest and see if you fly. Come on, kid, FLY!  Huh….”

I do, however, spend a lot of time contemplating the shift to a digital connected world, its affects on social interactions, and the very real dangers associated with the vast anonymous internet. My kids are not yet digital. Other than school, relatives and babysitters, my boys are rarely apart from me, so I haven’t felt the need to equip them with digital devices. That is all about to change as the oldest continues to push into more independence.

The past few weeks, as an Internal Medicine-Pediatric physician (trained to care for kids and adults), I have filled in more on the pediatric side of the medical office. And when sitting with 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds and even 17-year-olds, I’ve found myself giving each of them (and their parents) a little bit of advice.

To the kid:

That cell phone you have in your pocket is a very important and potentially very dangerous device. You can get reach out to friends, family, and a whole host of people, which is really awesome. But you can also get yourself into deep trouble with that phone by texting or talking to the wrong people or putting up photos or a whole bunch of things. But, the reason your parents got you that phone in the first place is most likely they wanted to keep you safe so that you could call them whenever you needed.

What you need to do – tonight – is sit down and talk with your parents about your “secret code.” Your secret code is a short phrase, known only to your family, which tells mom or dad that you need them absolutely positively NOW!!

For example, you might text your mom with the sentence, “Gosh, I sure am hungry for pepperoni pizza.” The minute your mom reads that sentence, she will stop everything she is doing (and I mean everything), jump in her car and drive immediately to where you are. She will make up some really stupid crazy parent excuse for why she has come to pick you up. “Dear, the cat is sick and we need to take her to the vet now. I’m so sorry, but I need you to come along.” (Don’t have a cat – make it your sister….but not to the vet….maybe to the doctor!). Then you will roll your eyes, text your friend “my mom is nuts!” and get in the car.

You see, I can tell you’re a smart kid. But every single smart kid at times in their lives gets into uncomfortable or bad or stupid situations. Maybe you’re visiting a friend and maybe another person comes over too. And maybe this other person starts to do something that you just don’t want to get into. Maybe it’s making prank calls. Maybe it’s lighting up a cigarette. It could be anything. If you find yourself in any uncomfortable situation, you pull out your phone and text your “secret code.” Your parent will read it and come. Right then. Your friends will read it and say, “Dude! That’s stupid. Are you really hungry? You want pizza?” And your parent is already in the car and on their way.

To the parent:

Now, we all know the reason you got the phone is so your most precious Jenny or Johnny fits in with the social crowd….well, and because you want to know she/he is safe and because it helps with managing our crazy busy lives and schedules.

You also know that the phone can be a very dangerous possession and I’m sure you’ve already talked with your son or daughter about the dangers. I’m also sure that you randomly confiscate the device and check all the texts, Snapchats, Instagram and whatever other apps and accounts.

What you will do – tonight – is sit down with your kid and develop a “secret extraction code.” (see above) And you will, at the moment that code comes in, drop everything you are doing (and I mean everything – your meeting, your treadmill run, your quick errand at the grocery store, your nice warm cozy bed) and you will turn on your tracking device, see where your kid is, jump in your car and drive over there.

The whole way your heart will be pounding in your ears and you will be scared about what you are about to walk in on, but you will take deep breaths and think of your stupid extraction excuse. “I’m so sorry, Johnny, but your little brother is sick and I need you home now.” And you will promise yourself over and over that these are the only words you’re allowed to say when you see Johnny.

In fact, you’re not even allowed to talk to Johnny when he jumps into the car. You’re not allowed to say a word except “I love you” until he begins to talk. And if he doesn’t talk for minutes or hours or even until the next day, the only thing you can say is “I love you. I am always here for you.”

Johnny needs to know that you’ve got his back. Johnny needs to know that no matter what, you are there for him. Johnny needs to know that you love him so much that no matter what he was doing, no matter what his friends were doing, no matter what – you will keep him safe.

Every parent has looked at me and nodded their head. They know. Deep down we all know the world can be a scary place. We all pray that our kids will make good choices and will never need their extraction code. But we also need our kids to know how to call for help in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their safety, that doesn’t embarrass them in front of their peers, and that doesn’t put the blame on them.

Our kids need to know that we love them so much that we will do whatever it takes to keep them physically, emotionally, mentally safe. No matter what. Mama Bear/Papa Bear will be there.

What’s your extraction code?

I would really like to trust you…

I really wanted to trust you. It’s my nature to start with trust. I’m not sure when my uneasiness began and the trust faded, but it finally started to bother my brain enough to make me jump in the pool shortly before the closing whistle to be nearer to my boys.

You had arrived just a bit earlier. I haven’t seen you at the community pool before though we’ve been there almost every sunny day. White man. Graying hair. Alone. No wedding band. As a single woman with hopes of someday changing that status, I pay attention to these things. You had a friendly smile. You noticed my middle child’s dive off the board and gave him a passing “Good job.” You swam. You were playful and went down the slide. You noticed the boys’ skill in swimming.

But then I noticed that you noticed my boys. poolSuddenly I noticed that I was noticing this notice. I peeled off my warm outer layer and jumped into the pool. We had a great time in the setting sun and the cooling evening. We splashed and raced each other around the pool. I caught the Little Guy over and over as he flew from the edge into my arms without his protective “floatie.” We played until the whistle blew and the pool closed. You said, “Thanks for sharing your pool with me” as you departed.

Leaving the pool, I tried to catch the manager but found him busy setting up for a private party. I made a note to call him later. I would like his help. I’d like him to remind his staff that the threat of human trafficking is real, even in this “safe” and seemingly small community. I’d like them to help me as a mother make sure that my boys never walk out of the pool area with anyone but me. I know they can’t keep track of everyone, but a gentle to reminder to keep an eye on kids and non-parental adults couldn’t hurt.

On the way home, I turned off the music in the van and asked for the boys’ attention. “Hey guys, I know that man we talked to seemed really nice today. And he may be a really nice guy. But we just met him and we don’t know him. So I need you to remember that you will never leave with someone or go to someone’s car unless you “Ask First” and I say it’s okay. Even if that man said to you, “Let’s go get a chocolate bar out of my car.” You would say, “I have to ask my Mom first.” Remember, you always Ask First.”

I really wanted to trust you. Maybe I can. Maybe we’ll see you around this summer. Maybe you’ll eventually become a friend. Maybe you’re actually a really nice guy. I hate that I have to become paranoid. But that’s the way it is, sir. This world seems a bit too crazy. My boys are way too precious to me. The thought of them caught up in abduction or trafficking makes my heart pause and my breath stop. They are my life, my joy and my responsibility.

Stay away from my boys.

Thank you.