[I’ve been on a deliberate news blackout for two months. A friend brought to my attention a recent heinous crime against a child, perpetrated by someone known to the family. When I was asked what a parent might do, I said that we can only do what we can do, and that includes teaching our children, even the youngest, the fundamentals of paying attention to their own inner guidance, also known as intuition, or to us neuroscience geeks, preconscious or subliminal processing of human danger cues. Even the little ones get it, but we grown ups spend a lot of time socializing out that gut level reaction to danger. Makes one wonder how many tragedies might be avoided if parents, in the interest of political correctness or social nicety, didn’t discourage their children’s immediate gut reactions to people, places, and situations. Small children and dogs are rarely wrong about their reactions to bad people. The below is presented in case it helps even one child or one parent.]
Once upon a time, I spent a fascinating afternoon with John Douglas, one of the founders of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, the famed “profilers” that’ve provided grist for fictional mills from Thomas Harris’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to TV’s CSI. I asked him, as a parent to a parent, what had changed for him after spending so many years studying the minds, behaviors, habits, and hunting methodologies of serial offenders. John is a genial, intelligent and articulate man with a surprising gentleness in his behavior for someone who’s devoted his life to hunting the most evil of humans.
There was nothing gentle in his face or voice when he snapped, “I NEVER let them [his children] out of my sight.”
I made the point that it’s impossible to keep our kids under 24/7 surveillance, especially when they hit their teen years, and he eased back a little and agreed. The emotional response rose out of his unprecedented experience in talking to so many agonized parents…and sitting across from malevolent beings who preyed on children.
It’s a good question, isn’t it? Whether as a parent or a good-hearted responsible human being, how do you teach children to recognize and react appropriately to danger/Evil when there’s no parent around? It’s very easy to say, well, never let your kids out of your sight. And any parent reading is this is going to know…you cannot always be there.
And more to the point, sooner or later those children we love will grow up and be out in the world — do you want them emerging from under your protective wing WITHOUT the skills to recognize and react appropriately to danger? Wouldn’t that be a grievous failure as a parent as well?
Interesting dilemma, yes?
I thought I’d share some techniques here that I’ve found useful in providing children as young as 5-6 the baseline foundational skills in recognizing bad intent. I don’t have all the answers, but these techniques, drawn from neuroscience, cognitive therapy and my own training design evolutions have been found useful by parents in quite a few high-risk environments. They’re simple to teach, use, implement and reinforce — and more to the point, they don’t scare kids the way that heated fear-driven lectures on what to do and not to do might.
I’ve used these with kids as young as 4, but 5-6 is probably the best place to introduce the skill set, especially since that’s when they will most likely be going off to school, and their rapidly growing brain is at the appropriate place to accommodate this particular cognitive-neurological change.
Set up a relaxed, casual environment. I like to think of setting the stage for this learning as similar to “Come here and sit, I want to tell you a story…”
Don’t preface with a lecture. Their brains aren’t ready for that. Tell a story, ask questions, get simple answers.
Start with this: “Can you think of a time when you were really, really SUPER happy?”
Watch their faces. If you know your kids, you’ll see a change that shows they are remembering that time.
Then say, “Where in your body do you feel that SUPER HAPPY feeling…show me! Put your finger on it!”
And then they will do so. It will be different for each kid — probably their belly, or their heart region, or maybe somewhere in their face/throat. But it’s individual to each kid.
Have them PLACE their finger on that spot.
Then laugh a little bit, talk about what they remember.
Then ask this questions, “Can you think of a time where you were really, really scared? In a movie, or in a story, or something you saw?”
And carefully watch their faces, because you want them to remember an incident, but not go too far into the memory…and when you see their face change, ask “Where in your body, right now, do you feel that SCARY feeling?”
And have them put their finger on it.
Then put your hand on that spot and say, “Okay, let’s remember a happy feeling again!”
And have them put their finger on the happy feeling spot.
Hang out in that for a little bit.
Then, if you’ve taught them not to talk to strangers (unless mom or dad SAY it’s okay, and these days most switched on adults will know to ask a parent if they can speak to their child…) give them this additional protocol, “If someone comes to you that you don’t know, ask yourself ‘Do I feel something in my Happy Place…or my Scary Place?” Role play it a little bit, but gently. It doesn’t take much to introduce that. What they need to internalize is a very fast intuitive feeling: “Is this a good person or a scary person?” And ACT.
If they feel the Scary Place/Person, give them the response/plan they need to ACT: Run away, scream for help, find a grown up they know.
Just that little bit, gently installed, and gently reinforced, might help your child (or somebody else’s child) on the day when the Wolf comes, and there’s nobody else there.
ps: for the lurking cognitive neuroscience types, Google somatic markers, preconscious processing, accentusludus accelerated learning and stress inoculation, DARPA, Office of Naval Research, NASA, if you want to dig into the hard science. I focus on techniques that a 3-6 year old can learn immediately and apply. Strangely enough, I find that approach works quite well with people that work under extreme stress…if they’re willing to learn.
pps: for the lurking writers/readers, I put this in THE ACHY MAN, as a technique a crippled man teaches to a 5 year old child threatened by Achy Man and his goons. It’s a good first step to help protect children from sick cowards…though sometimes the best way to protect young lambs is to simply kill the Wolf. Jus’ saying….