“NOTICE OF HIGH-RISK SEX OFFENDER IN COMMUNITY,” says the postcard in my mailbox, “Aviso de delincuente sexual del alto riesgo en la communidad.” Mixed in among the grocery store flyers and Dairy Queen coupons is a blurry black-and-white photo of a Caucasian man with a shaved head, goatee, and white T-shirt—a man who looks like half the men in Austin. The postcard also helpfully provides his name, aliases, offense, sentence, date of birth, height, weight, hair color, eye color, and the address he’s currently living at, in case I want to send him a birthday card, I guess, or a new T-shirt that matches his eyes.
“There’s a registered sex offender living in your neighborhood” is probably one of the last things any parent wants to hear (followed closely by “The kids have lice again”). One has to assume it’s better than having an un-registered sex offender in the neighborhood, because no one tells you about that. But still, it’s unsettling.
My first impulse upon reading the postcard is to forbid my children to leave the house for the next few months. My second impulse is to buy a baseball bat and follow the kids around with it whenever they go outside. What I finally do is show the card to my son and tell him to alert us if he sees anyone who looks like the man in the picture—"Even if he doesn’t say or do anything, and even if it turns out not to be this guy. Just tell us." He says he will. I consider asking him to keep an eye on his six-year-old sister when she’s playing outdoors, then decide against it. My son is a thoughtful and caring young man, but he is thirteen and the soundtrack of his life consists of Steely Dan and explosions. He is not qualified to act as anyone’s bodyguard.
Instead, my daughter and I review the safety plan she learned in karate, and I remind myself that children are far more likely to be hurt by people they know than by strangers. And I worry anyway.
Children’s safety is an instinctive concern, even for non-parents; any accident or crime is automatically worse when children are involved. We may not have the slightest idea of how to keep kids safe, but we know we’re supposed to, somehow. As parents, we slather the little monkeys with sunblock, encase them in helmets and kneepads, and yank them away from overly friendly strangers. This constant vigilance is fatiguing for parents and I imagine it also confuses the hell out of the kids, who are told they are safe and loved in one breath, and that they are in imminent peril of abduction, white slavery, and skin cancer in the next.
Which is it? And how are they supposed to know? What kind of world do we live in anyway, Disneyland or the universe where Spock has a goatee? Grownups are supposed to help kids make sense of all this, and instead we act like the obvious inconsistencies aren’t even there.
At some point, however, most parents do realize we can’t spend eighteen years trotting after our children with a bottle of sunblock and a baseball bat, and we start trying to teach them to protect themselves. For me, that first step was easy: I enrolled both of our kids in martial arts programs. The much harder part was explaining to them when they might need to use their physical self-defense skills. A stranger tries to pull you into a car? Yes, absolutely, use force. A kid behind you in line shoves you? No. Someone tries to touch you inappropriately? Yes. Someone tells you, “You can’t do that; you’re only a girl”? No. (Well . . . no.)
The gray area between fighting and not fighting is huge, and you have to wade into it, because a large part of personal safety is simply knowing when you might be in danger. Kids face a lot of common, small-scale safety situations that are easy to talk about: Bullies, traffic, and strange dogs. But they also face some, admittedly much rarer, that we’d prefer not to burden them with, like high-risk sex offenders living in the neighborhood.
How is a child supposed to know when she’s dealing with that kind of situation? How do you help her figure it out without terrifying her? I have terrible trouble, myself, knowing when I’m justified in hurting someone. How do you teach this delicate ethical decision-making process to a person who, if left to her own devices, will eat a bowl of Froot Loops with a fork?
Well, you do the best you can.
I quite stupidly went into parenthood assuming I should teach my children to avoid violence, especially at home. The evidence is pretty clear that if you grow up seeing violence as a solution to problems, you are more likely to employ it to solve problems as you get older. As I’ve said many times, I’m not at my levelheaded best in situations where violence is an option. So my husband and I have made it a standing policy never to hit our kids, and when their bickering gets above a certain decibel level, I usually step in, hear both sides, and decide the issue in a way that resolves the conflict, or at least enrages brother and sister equally. They almost never come to blows, which I always took as a sign that their childhoods were going well.
(Before you mistakenly conclude that I’m an overly protective mother, please know that for years, my sole directive to babysitters was “Don’t let them drown in the toilet.”)
I assumed that preventing fights was my job as a parent in part because my own youth was filled with bickering, pinching, punching, slapping, biting, and the occasional chokehold, and while those experiences were formative for me, they were not particularly pleasant. I strongly suspect that my penchant for violence and irrelevant military analogies stems from my time in the trenches of childhood.
Oddly enough, my own parents abhorred violence, at least in theory. “Fighting never solved anything,” my mother told us over and over, a transparent lie that we, like all children, saw through at once. We fought all the time, especially me and my sister, who were born eighteen months apart. There was a lot of free-floating hostility in our household that couldn’t seem to get resolved in any other way, and the power struggles among five children of two genders, spread across eight years and three bedrooms, were fierce. Even after we all moved out of the house, it hardly seemed like a holiday without at least the threat of physical violence.
When I got older, I felt in a vague sort of way that someone should have done something about all this fighting. Who or what, I’m not certain; I think my parents probably did the best they could. It just seemed wrong that we were expected to resolve our differences peacefully, but were never given the tools to do so. Like every other parent throughout history, I wanted something better for my own kids. I didn’t want their most vivid childhood memories to resemble a scene from Platoon.
So I mothered merrily along, enforcing peace, or at least sullen silence, and congratulated myself on not just preaching self-control as a family value, but really walking the non-violent walk, which is not exactly a natural gait for me.
Predictably, I then found out I was doing it all wrong.
I came across a study of rape survival strategies a few weeks ago that has forced me to rethink the connection between childhood fighting and adult violence. In this study, researchers compared the backgrounds of women who were raped to those of women who were assaulted but managed to prevent rape. They found marked differences in—get this—the attitude of the women’s parents to fighting. Women who successfully fought off their attackers were more likely, as children, to have been told to fight back in a conflict. Women whose parents had punished them for fighting were more likely to be raped. (If you do any work in this field, I’m referring to the Bart and O’Brien study.)
There were some other interesting findings—for example, women who thwarted rapists were more likely to know how to extinguish a grease fire, administer first aid, and fix a flat tire. Makes sense, right? Acquiring life skills of all kinds makes you more confident, more self-sufficient, and more likely to know that the groin is an excellent target.
And it also makes sense that women who fight as children are more effective fighters as adults. We are more conditioned to fight, and more likely to see physical force as a viable option if we are attacked. The theory aligns almost exactly with my own experience. At the same time, the mother in me is appalled by the implication here—namely that, in order for women to be able to defend themselves, they need to have miserable childhoods. You’d better get out there and fight, princess, because you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life.
It may make sense, but there’s something horribly wrong about it. After all, the little girls learning to fight are doing so alongside little boys who are being conditioned to get what they want by force. It’s two halves of the same problem. I mean, maybe if the parents of little boys punished their sons for fighting, those sons would be less likely to grow up and rape people. Has anybody studied that?
Someone should ask registered sex offenders how much fighting they did as kids, and what their parents thought about it. That’s the kind of information I wish they’d provide on the postcards; it would be more useful to me than knowing someone’s sentencing date: “Parents did not model good negotiating skills,” the Department of Public Safety should warn us, or “Was repeatedly told that only babies cry.”
There’s plenty to debate here on gender roles and the socializing functions of violence, but unfortunately none of it is going to get resolved before my kids grow up, and I need a plan of action now. Once again, it appears that this parenting gig involves a lot more improvisation than I had anticipated.
While I don’t propose to send my children out looking for fights (“Start with the kids in Drama Club, sweetie; thespians can’t take a punch”), I do feel the scales tipping back a bit from my initial non-violent approach to parenting. I am trying to keep an open mind on the question of fighting and children.
Curiously, my favorite piece of advice on self defense, for people of any age, comes from a children’s book, T. H. White’s largely forgotten Mistress Masham’s Repose. White’s narrator, after describing a bruising struggle between the story’s young heroine and her evil governess, concludes matter-of-factly, “So you see it is always best to go down fighting, and if anybody ever tries to beat you, you should fight them till you die.”
“Fight them till you die” isn’t something we tell kids very often, is it? Of course, White had no children; he could afford to be honest. We don’t like to talk about our children’s mortality, even though that’s what makes them so precious to us—the hope that they’ll outlive us, and the fear that they won’t. But White’s advice has the advantage of simplicity.
“Fight them till you die.” I think my kids can understand that. We may be discussing it soon over a bowl of Froot Loops.