Thursday, May 24, 2012

National Missing Children's Day: Has Etan Patz's Killer Confessed?

Tomorrow is National Missing Children's Day. First news report I saw when I logged onto my computer this morning was that a suspect has admitted to strangling Etan Patz, the boy who went missing his first time ever walking the two blocks to his school bus alone on May 25, 1979. His father was a photographer. His photo of the missing six year old was the first to appear on milk cartons, starting that campaign in the mid-80s.

A friend of mine at work recently told me about this show on Dateline called "My Kid Would Never Do That". I haven't watched it yet, and I probably won't ever get up the nerve. If, unlike me, you'd like to subject yourself to its stark reality, you can watch it here.

From what I understand, researchers with a hidden camera show various parents how easy it is for a potential child abductor to trick their child into coming with them. Parents who are certain their children know about stranger safety sit there horrified as they watch video of their children falling for dangerous tricks.

I'm too wussy to watch the video, but the accompanying article has some invaluable tips for teaching our kids to stay safe. In my opinion, the first step is the most important: It's ok to say no to an adult. And I would add, it's ok to say no to anyone, since many kids are left in the care of other, older kids who can hurt them too. I'm not saying let's teach our kids to routinely disrespect people. But it's important to teach children from a very young age that they should listen to most grownups since we've lived longer and have had more experience with life, but that ultimately, they are the boss of themselves.

from the article:
STEP 1: Empower Your Child to Say “No!” If you want your kids to stand up for themselves, don’t get in the habit of speaking for them. Doing so, can rob a child from developing the very skills she needs to look and sound determined. Instead, find opportunities for your children to practice using strong body language and a firm voice, so they can learn to defend themselves.

•Give Permission to Say “NO:” Studies show that kids under the age of nine rarely say “No” to a sexual offender because they were told “to obey adults.” So give your child permission to yell NO! “If someone tries to touch you in places your bathing suit covers, makes you feel at all afraid or uncomfortable, say ‘NO!’ You will not be in trouble. If someone tells you to do something you know is not right like get in an ice cream truck say ‘NO!’”

•Use your gut instinct: A “fear factor” can be powerful in keeping kids safe, but often isn’t used because we fail to help our kids learn to trust their gut instincts. Teach your child that if he ever feels he could be in danger, to use that fear instinct and leave immediately. You’ll support matter what!

•Teach 9-1-1: Make sure your child knows her first and last name, your first and last name, phone number, and address. Program your home phone so your child can reach you and 9-1-1 instantly. Put a sticker on the “0.” Then teach how to dial “operator” to reverse charges, so she can call you from any phone anywhere.

•Establish a family secret code. Choose a memorable code like “Geronimo,” to give only to family members or trusted individuals responsible for your kids in your absence. Then stress: “Never leave with anyone who can’t say our family’s secret code.” Create a texted code (like “111” or “123”) to be used by the child to contact you if in danger. It recently saved a California teen from abduction.

•Teach: “Drop, Holler, and Run.” Teach your child that if he ever needs to get away quickly, he should drop whatever he is carrying, holler, and run. If possible, he should run to an adult (ideally a woman with children) screaming, “Help! This isn’t my dad!” If grabbed, he should hold on to anything (such as his bicycle handles or car door) holler, and kick an abductor in the groin or eyes. Dropping to the ground and kicking tantrum-style, makes it more difficult to be picked up. Stress: “I’ll never be upset if you hurt someone if you’re trying to protect yourself.”

But being the boss of yourself is not the same as being left alone. Kids need our guidance and attention. I want to teach my daughter to trust herself but to also know she has trusted grownups to turn to if she ever finds herself in a tricky situation.

Like little Etan in 1979, I walked two blocks and waited for the school bus when I was six, back in 1976. I made it safely to where I am now, a middle-aged mom with a soon-to-be six year old of my own. But Will and I don't let Katie walk to school by herself. If we can't accompany her home, we get a family member or good friend to pick her up and wait with her until we get home. We're very lucky we have such support because we're just not ready to have a latch-key kid.

Free-range kids advocates would probably call us helicopter parents. I don't care. I enjoy the time I spend walking with my daughter to and from school. I'd rather get some fresh air and exercise together than have that extra 20 minutes to myself to sit and worry about my kid being one of the 115: "Over at the think tank, where they examine the way the media use statistics, researchers have found that the number of kids getting abducted by strangers actually holds very steady over the years. In 2006, that number was 115, and 40% of them were killed."

So I ask you, my friends, at what age do you think most kids can handle walking by themselves two blocks to wait for a school bus? Leave your comments below.