The Test of Twelve

I’m not a parent who buys into the “stranger danger” propaganda. By this, I mean that I’m not worried that a kidnapping or molestation of my child is just around every corner. I’m a big supporter of the Free-Range Kid movement. Occasionally strangers attempt to harm people, but the majority of harm done to children is usually by someone they know.

Claire has a collection of Pooh stories (not written by A.A. Milne) that she loves; one is called “Don’t Talk to Strangers, Pooh.” I dread when she asks it to be read to her, and I always re-word it as I read. I don’t want to instill a fear of strangers into my daughter. How is she to make friends in this world, or find her way, or ask for help when she needs it? I simply want her to understand never to go off anywhere with a stranger. I want her to learn this until she is of age — that is, a confident adult who can assess risks and listen to her intuitive signals.

When I was a child, my disposition and personality attracted bullies. I was a sentimental child with zero self-confidence. (I grew up into a depressed adult with zero self-confidence, but with enough gumption and drive to heal and overcome this.) I have vivid memories of being taunted:

  • a bully yanking a play necklace off me in kindergarten, watching the beads scatter everywhere, hearing him tell me I could not stand on the school porch and he would kill me if I did (thank you Mark S.);
  • an older child riding his bike around me in ever tighter circles as I walked to piano lessons a few blocks from home, threatening to run into me;
  • being choked (hands tight around the neck) by a boy in third grade when I would not give him a book that I had brought to school (thank you Tony F.) — fortunately the teacher was nearby and pried his hands from my throat;
  • being tormented throughout fourth and fifth grade by a “friend” who happened to be the local Presbyterian minister’s kid — she hid my belongings, said terrible things to and about me, ganged up with another girl against me (thanks Suzanne H.). I was so relieved when our fifth grade teacher told me she was moving away to Massachusetts that summer;
  • being punched in the stomach by a class bully (a girl no less) in fifth grade (thank you Colleen F.);
  • being exiled from my four friends with whom I shared a table (and locker) in sixth grade — all girls, who are great at emotional bullying.

That last incident was the first — and only — time I ever fought back. It began on a Wednesday, escalated into Thursday; that night, after being physically ill with fear and worry about what they would do next, I vowed the first one to harass me the next day would get kicked in the stomach. One of them approached me with a taunt, and I kicked. Then I fled, hysterical and sobbing, to the principal’s office. I asked to call my mother, and I begged her to come take me home. The principal intervened and said they’d figure out what was going on. I was terrified that I’d hurt the girl, that I was in big trouble, that I was hated by the entire sixth grade. I spent the day with the school counselor processing all this. He came with me when I went to apologize to the girl. This was a Friday. The principal called the other girls’ parents to tell them about the ostracism. The following Monday (I agonized all weekend about what might happen next), the girls came to apologize to me and make up, and I was accepted again. That was the day of the class picnic. Life was wonderful again, for the moment.

This was all exacerbated by the fact that from age 8 through 12, life at home was not placid and secure. In fact, throughout my teen years this was the case, but by the time I reached high school I had primarily withdrawn from school life and was mostly left alone. Oh, except for the nasty rumor that I was having an affair in 11th grade with my social studies teacher; I had a crush on him, but more importantly, he listened to me pour out my troubles and referred me to the school psychologist, whom I began to see and whom I credit with keeping me intact through graduation. I’m not at liberty to describe why my home life was as it was; it’s only important to know that the milieu, combined with my personality, combined in such a way as to make me a target.

I know that it’s an animal instinct to go for the jugular, to attack the weak one. I know that fearfulness, simpering, flinching, and crying triggers the meanness in others. I have felt that meanness in myself, been tempted by it, and have occasionally indulged it. When I grew up, I realized that if I had a daughter, I want to help her to know that it is perfectly all right to defend herself. Now, my daughter is not me — she has a differently personality and home life — and I’m careful not to project my past onto her. Still, there are things worth knowing.

When I was twelve, there was a carnival down the road at Taunton Corners. Every year it came for the Firemen’s Field Days. At that age, I was allowed to walk down there myself, about a mile away. The man running the duck game flirted with me. I was taken by the attention. I flirted back in the innocent way a 12-year-old does. Then he made a suggestion to me, that I should come back that evening when the carnival was closed to spend time with him. I was intrigued, and tempted, and scared, and unnerved. Something felt icky about the way he looked at me, about the suggestion. I felt uncomfortable, and I never went; I also never back to that game. That was a good decision. I listened to my intuition, and it did not guide me poorly.

I ignored my intuition when I was 31. I ended up sexually assaulted. Not that it was my fault. It’s just that, looking back, I see the signals that I ignored because I was trying to be “a nice person,” (such a strong cultural expectation for women). I remember my reluctance to fight back, to scream; my desperate attempt to reject what was happening.

So, how does one raise a child to be secure but not naive, savvy but not paranoid? There are two books filled good guidance to answer this question, both written by Gavin DeBecker. I am pulling an excerpt from one of his books below. It is a “test” of sorts, one which he suspects many adults would not “pass” if they asked themselves these questions.

I’m not advocating raising children to be violent, to be bullies, to be snots and brats. Yet in certain circumstances, it is vitally important to be able to know and do the following. The questions pertain to interactions children have with adults, but in some cases it may be useful to think of them in context with kids who are bigger and older than the child in question.

Do your children know…

  1. How to honor their feelings – if someone makes them uncomfortable, that’s an important signal;
  2. You (the parents) are strong enough to hear about any experience they’ve had, no matter how unpleasant;
  3. It’s okay to rebuff and defy adults;
  4. It’s okay to be assertive;
  5. How to ask for assistance or help;
  6. How to choose whom to ask;
  7. How to describe their peril;
  8. It’s okay to strike, even to injure, someone if they believe they are in danger, and that you’ll support any action they take as a result of feeling uncomfortable or afraid;
  9. It’s okay to make noise, to scream, to yell, to run;
  10. If someone even tries to force them to go somewhere, what they scream should include, “This is not my father” (because onlookers seeing a child scream or even struggle are likely to assume the adult is a parent);
  11. If someone says, “Don’t yell,” the thing to do is yell (and the corollary: If someone says, “Don’t tell,” the thing to do is tell);
  12. To fully resist ever going anywhere out of public view with someone they don’t know, and particularly to resist going anywhere with someone who tries to persuade them.

–Gavin DeBecker, Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)

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3 Comments on “The Test of Twelve”

  1. Kathy in San Jose Says:

    Thank you for sharing some very hurtful experiences and what you have learned from them. You are a strong, wise woman and I have no doubt that Claire will be the same due to your examples.

  2. Tiffany Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I, too, was a magnet for bullies and predators, so having resources to combat this for my own kiddo is worth the world. (I immediately ordered the book you cited. :-))

  3. la peregrina Says:

    “Teach, your children well,” something you are doing brilliantly, Kathryn.