The news from Cleveland last week was sickening on so many levels. My heart breaks for those three women, not only for what they endured these last ten years, but for what they lost, as well. Your late teens through your late twenties are some of the best years of your life. To be robbed of those years for doing nothing more than getting in the wrong car is so devastatingly sad.
But what happened to those poor women is another reminder of just how vulnerable we are, and how easily anyone’s life can change in just an instant. And I would imagine that they wouldn’t want what happened to them to happen to anyone else ever again.
The first time I spoke to my daughter about not talking to strangers was when she was in kindergarten. I had the typical talk with her that you’d expect to have with a five year-old. Don’t talk to strangers, even if they say they know me or daddy. Don’t take food from strangers. Don’t ever get in a car with a stranger, or agree to walk anywhere with a stranger. If a stranger tries to touch you or take you somewhere, run away and scream as loud as you can.
Since then, the subject has only come up a few times. If my daughter takes her scooter around the block by herself, I remind her not to stop for anyone she doesn’t know. If she goes to the bathroom by herself at the movies or in a mall, I might casually toss off a “don’t talk to any strangers in there.” Her reply is always the same - "I know, Mom," along with an eyeroll. But after I heard about what happened in Cleveland, I couldn’t help wondering, does she know? Does she really know?
I decided it was time for Don’t Talk to Strangers 2.0.
This past Friday night, she and I had dinner together, just the two of us, while my son and my husband were at a hockey game. As we sat in the food court at the mall, I told her about the three girls in Cleveland who’d been kidnapped and had been living in some sick guy’s house for a decade. I didn’t go into detail - I didn’t tell her about the child that had been born, or about the chains in which they’d been kept. But I told her about how the guy had offered each of them a ride home, and how they’d all accepted.
My daughter was shocked. She couldn’t understand why anyone would get in a car with a creepy, weird guy. And it occurred to me, right then, that that was the problem. She knew not to talk to strangers. But in my daughter’s mind, strangers were all creepy, weird men.
"Oh, my God," I said to her in a super-friendly voice. "Excuse me, but we’re holding auditions for this new TV show just down the street, and you would be so perfect for one of the leads! Come on, come with me, I’ll take you there."
My daughter’s eyes got wide. I would totally go, she confessed.
"Hey," I said, in the same super-friendly voice. "We’ve got this really cool new store a couple of blocks away, and we’re giving out free jeans to girls who are ten to thirteen. Are you ten to thirteen? You are? Perfect! Come on, I’ll take you."
My daughter nodded. "I’d go," she said. I nodded back. "I know."
Of course, it’s not her fault. She’s been sheltered, she’s trusting, and nobody’s ever told her that bad people don’t all look like crazy homeless men. Nobody’s ever told her that bad people can look totally respectable. They can be nice-looking men who look like they could be someone’s dad, or young guys who look like someone you’d want to date. They can be well-dressed women who look like me, or twenty-five year-olds who look like sorority girls. They can seem cool and fun and charming, and have really exciting, flattering things to say or offer you. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re all strangers, and any one of them could be waiting to take you to their basement and keep you locked up there for the rest of your life.
I realized in talking to her that kids aren’t born street smart. And in our over-parented, over-protective world, they never even have an opportunity to become so. We shield them from the news. We don’t let them see movies like Taken (which haunts me still, to this day).
Statistically speaking, what happened to those girls in Cleveland will probably never happen to any of our children. But as we’ve seen, it does happen. And one day, our kids will be out from under our noses, and all we’ll be able to do is hope that we’ve prepared them and taught them how to sniff out a bad situation and run the other way. If you haven’t talked to your kids about this, do it. I’m sure those women in Cleveland would want you to.