Yesterday, September 3, the long missing Jacob Wetterling’s body was brought home. And Minnesota wept. It was the single most talked about topic, weighing heavily on everyone.
I can’t imagine the pain Patty and Jerry Wetterling’s went through for 27 years as they searched for their son. 27 years. That’s an entire lifetime. That’s my entire lifetime.
Over dinner, Brad and I spoke about this tragedy. We pick and choose what to shield our children from and what to sugar coat. The realities of bad people who do harm to children is not one of those things. So in an age appropriate way, we explained to Marshall.
“Do you know who Jacob is? The little boy everyone is talking about?” I gently asked. “No.” “Well, he is a little boy who a very bad man took. Today we found out he isn’t going to be coming home to his mama after all…” Marshall cut me off “A little boy won’t see his mama?” “Yes, buddy.” “But…a boy? Bad men take girls.”
This is when his confusion shocked me. We have never said bad men take girls or that girls are at a higher risk of being victims of crimes. But at four years old my little boy seems to think that his male status is some sort of shield, while being a girl is a target. Maybe it’s from him catching bits of the news? Maybe it’s from him occasionally walking in on his dad’s work conversation? Many victims are girls but boys are definitely not precluded.
“No, buddy,” I quietly pushed on “little boys can be hurt too. To bad people, it doesn’t matter.” So I brought up some of our rules. This is one of the reasons you aren’t allowed to play too close to the road, this is why we tell you not to stray too far away from mama and papa in the stores, this is why we have the rule about being able to see you when we go to the park and biking trails. Our rules aren’t to ruin your fun, but to protect you.
Now, I know the unfortunate reality of things. I am well aware that stranger danger isn’t the most prevalent. So instead of just “stranger danger” we also teach our kids about “tricky people”.
If Marshall somehow gets separated from us at a large event, I don’t want him running away from everyone because every stranger is a perceived threat. No, he needs to know that there are some strangers that he could tell he’s lost. These strangers we ask him to look for: uniformed police officers, uniformed firefighters, groups (meaning two or more) of mommies with little kids, groups of “grandmas”- to name a few. I know there are ill willed people in every demographic, but very unlikely that there’s a group of serial kidnapping grannies on the loose. It’s a numbers game and there’s safety in numbers.
Going along the tricky people path, is acknowledging that it’s not just strangers that are a danger. No one- not a family member, family friend, coach, teacher, etc- should ever ask you not to tell mama or papa or that anything is a secret. People should not make kids uncomfortable or embarrassed and then say it’s a secret. Anywhere that their bathing suits cover should remain covered.
Brad and I do not spank our children. We definitely discipline and have been called strict by some family, but we will never spank. I want my children to know that no one has the right to put their hands on them. No matter what someone accused them of doing, they never “deserve” to be physically hurt or have a hand on where their bathing suit would cover. I don’t want them to feel that that is normal.
We stress to them that they will never get in trouble for telling us what happens when they are with others. We tell them that sometimes tricky people try to trick children by saying their parents will be mad at them or that they might hurt their parents if the child tells. If something hurts our children we want them to tell us. We won’t be mad, we will have a conversation. And I always follow up the tricky people threat of hurting parents with “do you think anyone is going to be able to hurt your papa when he deals with big strong people at work everyday?” Marshall obviously says no, papa is an untouchable super hero in his eyes. “And do you think anyone would be able to hurt mama after I find out they hurt you or sissy?” That usually gets an even wider eye head shake “no”. Hell hath no fury like an Italian mother protecting her children.
The fact of the matter is we can only do the best we can. We teach tricky people instead of just stranger danger. We are open that sometimes bad people hurt good people. Sometimes, like in Jacob’s case, they don’t come home. But these conversations have to be had and had often enough where it is second nature for the kids to keep within eyesight and away from roads. Jacob left a legacy behind, it is one of conversation and the hope of keeping other children safe.