Ariel Castro appears in Cleveland Municipal court on Thursday. Castro was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape after three women missing for about a decade and one of their young daughters were found alive at his home earlier in the week. (Tony Dejak/AP)
The news out of Cleveland this week of three young women held captive for a decade of physical, sexual and psychic abuse horrified the world. For parents, the news provoked perhaps a more targeted kind of fear, and raised one of the most fraught questions in parenting: How can we instill in our kids street smarts and an instinct to detect danger without leaving them terrified and fearful of the world? For some answers, we paged child psychiatrists Gene Beresin and Steven Schlozman, both at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Here is their professional response:
Every parent has said it: “Now, kids…don’t talk to strangers.”
It’s good advice. However, given the recent horrific events in Cleveland, some parents might very appropriately worry that this particular bit of wisdom is due for re-evaluation. After all, it appears all three young women kidnapped and held hostage for the past decade got into a car with their tormenter. He was known in the neighborhood, after all, and his own daughter was friends with one of the victims.
This is, of course, an extreme example of a particular narrative that we hear repeatedly these days. “We can’t let our kids play outside like we used to — the world has changed too much.”
But where does that leave us? What do we say to our children as we struggle to maintain the shaky balance between ensuring safety and also teaching independence and reasonable trust in the world and in our communities?
This is among the most vexing questions of modern parenthood. We certainly don’t want our kids to see a trusted uncle or coach as a potential villain – that would create an emotionally untenable world where all individuals, no matter how well known, are deemed potentially dangerous.
And yet, the alleged perpetrator in Cleveland was the father of one of the prisoner’s close friends. How do we deal with this dilemma?
There is of course no perfect or straightforward answer. Events like those in Cleveland are indeed extremely rare. Understandable media attention can create the impression that the world is in fact far worse than it actually is. At the same time, though, we have to find a way to increase awareness among our children of the potential dangers inherent in our world.
Know Your Child
So, for children of all ages, what can we do to?
Remember that every child is different; the way you present your words of safety needs therefore to be tailored to your individual child. So, the first principle is to know your child. Parents are good at this. In most cases, no one knows a kid better than the kid’s parents. There are 8-year-olds who will not be particularly bothered that even a well-known neighbor might have somewhat sketchy “issues.” And there are 12-year-olds who will freak out, have nightmares and feel that he or she can never trust anyone ever again. Continue reading