Nice people may not be interested in the defiled world of predators, but predators are interested in their children. Adult predators, sexual or otherwise, aim to separate children from their parents and/or from other adults who might stop them. Most kids are not separated at gunpoint or knifepoint; rather they are lured away by those who earn trust in dishonest ways.
Here’s how they earn our trust. (Gavin DeBecker broadly calls these “Survival Signals.”)
Forced Teaming: A predator uses the word we when we isn’t true or accurate. It establishes premature trust and makes a kid feel obligated to stay around this adult. He says things like, “We’re sure in a mess, aren’t we?” Teach your child to say to a stranger, or to someone they know but do not trust, “I didn’t ask for your help, and I don’t want it. Leave me alone.” This isn’t wrong. It’s wise.
Charm and Niceness: In order to deceive, you have to remain at least one step ahead of someone. Charm and niceness can hide intent and give a head start. People who take control of others almost always pretend to be nice in the beginning. Teach your children that “nice” is not the same as good. This is especially important for girls, who are generally expected to be warm and friendly toward adults.
Too Many Details: Con artists often use too many details to tell the story because they know that since it’s not true, the story must be sold. After a while, details can wear down a person’s defenses, as dishonest salespeople know well. Teach your child to consider context by asking herself, Why is this person talking to me in the first place, and why is he telling me so many things?
Typecasting: This involves a slight insult, initially one that’s easy to refute. “You’re one of those kids who’s too scared to disagree with your parents, aren’t you?” It’s designed to get a child on the defensive, breaking down resistance. Teach your child he does not have to answer every question put to him. In some cases, short answers like “Whatever” are appropriate.
Loan-Sharking: Predators will often give a child something (the common example is candy) to make her feel indebted. It can also be advice or sympathy: “Your parents don’t listen to you, do they? I’m glad to listen. I care about you even when others don’t.” Teach your kids not to accept gifts from people who want something in return. Otherwise it’s not a gift—it’s a debt installment.
The Unsolicited Promise: Someone promises to do something for a child who never asked for it but is getting it anyway. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.” Promises are used to convince us of an intention, but they are not guarantees. Nor does such a person behave in a way that he will guarantee anything. If he did, it would expose his deceitful intent. When someone provides an unsolicited promise, teach your child to think, You’re right, I am hesitant to trust you. Thank you for making that clear.
Discounting No: Anyone who chooses not to hear the word no is trying to control your child. A frequent (and potentially dangerous) response in this situation is negotiation: “I really appreciate your offer, but let me try to do it on my own first.” Teach your child, instead, to say out loud what she’s really thinking. If that’s “Bug off,” she should say it. Teach her to look a person in the eyes with strength, to walk away, and to be loud if necessary. De Becker says, “You cannot turn a decent man into a violent one by being momentarily rude, but you can present yourself as an ideal target by appearing too timid” (and nice).
If your child never talked to strangers, then he would never talk to a police officer or a store clerk. Telling a kid that strangers are dangerous equates strangers with danger, which prevents kids from finding that line between protection and overprotection. Once again, most predatory behavior toward children involves someone they know; pinning danger on strangers is one of the best ways to destroy a child’s perception of and intuition about true danger. Instead, teach your children to evaluate behavior, specifically strangeness (not necessarily strangers). Teach them to pay attention to stares that last too long, a smile that’s not real, rapid looking away, and other signs of discomfort.
If a stranger talks to you and your child and doesn’t give off warning signs, talk with your child about why you felt safe around that man, and also what would have made you feel unsafe around him.
If your kid is lost in public, train him to ask a woman for help before asking a man. This does not contradict the fact that a mother is more likely than a father to physically abuse her child. This is not her kid, and, furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that she’s a sexual predator. According to De Becker, a woman is more likely to stay involved in a lost child’s trouble until it’s resolved; a man is more likely to let authorities handle the problem.
Kids should know that it’s okay to be “mean.” In fact, being good sometimes requires you to be “mean” to others. “Mean” in this context means conflict, which isn’t always mean. Children need our help understanding this, because they are wired to seek the approval of adults, even when adults don’t deserve it. Predators bank on that.
This is hard for Christian parents to accept if they believe it’s wrong to use verbal and physical force. But read just the first few chapters of Mark’s gospel and tell me Jesus didn’t believe in or enter into deliberate conflict. Saying that Jesus (and, by default, Christianity) denounces conflict is like saying Karl Marx was a capitalist.
When it comes to self-protection, conflict is good. It does not mean retaliation. It means telling your kid it’s okay to rebuff an adult and even injure one if needed. It’s okay to yell and to otherwise make a scene—teach your child to yell, if he or she is being grabbed, “This is not my father!” (or mother). That’s likely to get a bystander to step in, since most assume a child is being escorted by a parent.
Regarding authority, a child’s view toward it can be dangerous in two key areas. If he questions authority too much, he will be blackballed by adults, who will find him unnecessarily contentious, and his peers won’t like him much either. But if the child is too trusting of all authority, he sets himself up to become a naïve victim.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.