A Dad's View 15: Protecting kids' innocence
It's a mistake to think life was safer when we were young, says Tom Dunmore, but is it also a mistake to fill our children with fear?
Lise is fuming. 'At nursery today,' she explains, 'they told Ava not to talk to strangers. Ava actually said it was because strangers would "take her home and do bad to things to her". Bad things!'
'Is that what she said?' I ask, trying to work out whether I'm angry with the teacher's scare tactics or just impressed with Ava's succinct summary.
'Exactly!' says Lise, misinterpreting my uncertainty as outrage. 'They don't need to spell it out to a four-year-old!' 'Well, maybe we should speak to the teacher?' I suggest. 'I will,' she says. 'But,' I add, 'we should probably speak to Ava too.'
Parenting is full of conundrums, but sometime between debating controlled crying and sex eduction we all face this question: at what point do you start to chip away at a child's innocence in order to protect them? And how do you walk the line between making a child street-savvy and scaring them witless?
Fear may seem like an instinctive response, but sometimes it does need to be taught. For example, my 15-month-old son Erik is determined to leap head-first from the top of every slide and staircase he climbs. My dad says I should let him work it out for himself but, fond as I am of laissez-faire fathering, I fear he's likely to destroy all his cognitive abilities before discovering the benefits of a more gentle descent. So instead I scream like a girl every time he approaches a slope. I figure that even if I don't scare him, I can probably embarrass him into submission.
But this approach won't work for the don't-talk-to- strangers lesson. My friend Rachel resorted to stories of the bogey man.
They had no effect on her son's habit of vanishing, but did stop him sleeping for several weeks. We've been taking the opposite approach: denial. But with two children now competing for our internet-addled attentions, it's time to talk candidly. Lise looks unconvinced. We were both country kids.
We used to play in the fields unsupervised, because we were brought up in a more innocent age that Ava calls 'the olden days'. But innocence is a state of mind: my parents didn't fear the worst, but I still had a (thankfully uneventful) brush with a predatory teacher. I also saw friends turn to heroin out of sheer boredom. Olden days, perhaps, but certainly not golden.
In an age of hysterical, wall-to-wall news, the easy option is to live in fear. But kids want to learn about the world, not retreat from it. And they're not too keen on being told santised stories. Ava cried
today while watching the Pixar movie Up – not because the old lady died, but because her death wasn't shown in graphic detail. She's currently so obsessed with death that she demanded the scene was replayed twice to check she hadn't missed something. Then she fled the room in outrage.
Later on, I pop downstairs to casually enquire 'What should you do if a stranger talks to you?' Without considering her response, Ava matter-of-factly exclaims, 'You say, "I don't know this person! I don't know this person!"' 'Ok! Ok!' I say, panicking that I may never be able to de-activate this tiny little girl-shaped alarm. Ava skips out of the room. You may not like the teacher's method, but you certainly can't fault