Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)

When deciding whether to read Gavin de Becker’s “Protecting the Gift,” parents face one question: will the information he provides increase your child’s safety enough to justify the traumatic experience of reading about the world’s predators?  The answer depends at least in part on one’s personality.  I saw danger lurking around every corner for only a few days after finishing the book, and then settled back into my largely apprehension-free steady state – only now empowered by the practical tips de Becker offers and the concomitant ability to let go of worry that I ought to do more.  For others, the stories de Becker tells may have the reverse effect, instilling fear of “imagined risks” despite the advice he offers to stave them off (e.g., “encourag[e] the chronic worriers in your life to avoid watching the local news”).

In well-organized and engaging prose, de Becker repeatedly hammers home his overarching advice: “Safety starts with knowing that your intuition about people is a brilliant guardian.”  If, of course, you eschew denial (the signs of which include “rationalization, justification, minimization, excuse-making, and refusal”) and politeness in favor of honoring your instinctual feelings.  After all, de Becker asks, “which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or placing [your] child and [your]self into a soundproof steel chamber with a stranger [you are] afraid of?”

He also hands out a plethora of tips for avoiding victimization by both “persuasion-predators” and “power-predators” (much more rare), including a “Test of Twelve” for “what children would ideally know before they are ever alone in public,” recommendations for specific programs (like IMPACT training), and an appendix listing questions for your child’s school.  Many of the simple strategies make total sense, but have never before entered my radar screen.  For example, don’t wear headphones unless you’re in an undoubtedly safe environment (“[A woman] jogging . . . along in public enjoying music through headphones . . . has disabled her hearing, the survival sense most likely to warn her about dangerous approaches.  To make matters worse, those wires leading up to her ears display her vulnerability for everyone to see.”).  Teach your kids to approach a woman if they are ever lost, since statistically speaking the person who reaches out to a scared and isolated child is much more likely to bode ill than one randomly chosen out of a crowd by the child, and men are much more dangerous to children than women.  When planning a sleepover, investigate the other family as you would a childcare provider (this includes asking if they have a gun); tell your kids, “‘[i]f you are ever at all uncomfortable, or you just want to talk, you can call home at any time’”; and talk to them “as soon after a sleepover as possible.”  In order to avoid sexual abuse, “[m]ake careful, slow choices about the people you include in your child’s life – and fast choices about the ones you exclude,” and “[t]each your child about touch, the body, boundaries, communication, assertiveness, and sovereignty over the body” (including not forcing them to address or embrace people, as embarrassing as their reticence may be, and teaching them how to say “no” to an adult, that “[i]t’s okay to withdraw consent at any time,” the anatomic names for their lady and gentleman parts, and “[t]o keep telling if nobody listens and if nobody makes it stop”).  Warn teenage daughters about Rohypnol and know your son’s friends (because “[t]he key that unlocks a boy’s destructiveness is often held by another boy”).  Finally, teach teenage children of both genders that “no” means no, contrary to the “popular Hollywood formula . . . Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Persists and Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl.”

I found the most useful information, however, to be that derived from de Becker’s unique insight (“[his] adversity was [his] university”) into the psychology of predation.  For example, in order to identify a persuasion predator, look for “behaviors intended to put you at ease . . . : forced teaming, charm and niceness, too many details, typecasting, loan-sharking, the unsolicited promise, [and] discounting the word ‘no.’”  This high-level awareness is easier for the whole family to attain if you “[t]hink of charm as a verb, not a trait,” and “teach [y]our children that niceness does not equal goodness.”  When your intuition speaks of danger, “[d]o or say something that communicates early and clearly that you are not an easy target (steely eyes, hold the stare, walk away, raise your voice).”  “A young woman who believes she is being followed might take just a tentative look, hoping to see if someone is visible in her peripheral vision.  It is better to turn completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you.  This not only gives you information, but it communicates to a pursuer that you are not a tentative, frightened victim-in-waiting.”  Also, remember that “if a predator orders you to go somewhere with him, he is really telling you that staying here is to your advantage and to his disadvantage.”  (And along these lines, “If a man who intends sexual assault or rape has Privacy and Control, he can victimize someone.  If he does not have PC, he is not dangerous, period.”  Thus, carefully choose to whom you give “PC.”).

Is thinking about these issues scary?  Yes.  Are there real dangers in the world that could threaten your child’s (and mine’s) happiness?  Yes.  Is there something you can do about it besides worry?  Yes.  Could reading this book make you a more fearful and overprotective parent?  Yes.  Know yourself and make the call.

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