I love Gavin De Becker’s Gift of Fear. It’s not about being afraid, it’s about respecting your sense of fear and deciphering between what is real fear, which should be respected, and what is not. It’s about examining your environment, assessing different signals, and respecting the inner voice that tells you to remove yourself from the threatening situation no matter how much the second-handed voice says, don’t be a silly baby.
I gave the book to my oldest daughter before college and have Protecting the Gift of Fear lost among the piles of book depositories strewn wildly throughout my house (some are more formally known as bookshelves – others, formerly known as clear horizontal surfaces). Someday I need to find that one; it specializes in talking to kids about assessing risk without causing fear. I could have used it on Sunday.
My youngest, 13, asked to go bike riding with a friend at the cemetery at the end of our street: nice paths, almost no cars, lovely trees. We’d been there many times together and it is a quiet and peaceful place (so long as you are not mourning the loss of someone whose final resting place is there). Given her familiarity with the area, the relatively small size of the grounds, and the quiet neighborhood we live in, I had no problem with the plan provided they stayed on the paths and kept their voices to a respectful level especially if they saw people visiting the graves.
When she was gone longer than seemed appropriate for bike riding around the small area over and over and over again, I asked Stephen to give her a call on her cell phone. While she was on the phone with him she began to laugh, oddly and then hung up. Stephen called her back and she had that same odd laugh. He wouldn’t hang up and insisted she tell him what was going on. She reported that some guy was asking her friend where the “H's” where.
In a cemetery. Where are the “H's.”
Okay. The guy was on a bike, had stopped his bike and stood in front of them for a second. Moved on, and came back around to ask that question while Stephen was on the phone with our daughter.
- Threatening? Lone guy on a bike? No.
- Threatening? Lone guy on a bike asking children for ridiculous information? Adults do not need to gain information from unattended children. Ever. So this is suspicious behavior at best.
- Threatening? Lone guy on a bike asking children for information when they are alone in an isolated area? Yes.
Stephen made his way to the cemetery as the girls were racing homeward. They were truly frightened and said the guy was following them. Stephen told them to ride straight home as he headed into the cemetery.
He approached the guy, who may have actually been following them out of the cemetery, stopped in front of him and said, “Hi.” The helmeted and overweight guy mumbled a “hi” back and rode off in another direction. Neither Stephen nor the girls had ever seen him around before.
Assessment: Probably a mentally challenged adult. This makes his asking about the “H's” less sinister, but it does not make his approaching the girls in an isolated area any less creepy or threatening.
So what did they do wrong?
- Stopped to sit and talk in the isolated, empty cemetery.
- Did not get back on their bikes as soon as they saw the lone male bike rider was interested in them.
- Did not get on their bikes and leave as soon as the man approached them.
- Laughed nervously instead of making a definite and defensive move away from the man.
What did they do right?
- Assessed the man's behavior as creepy.
- Got back on their bikes and headed home immediately after the man tried to talk to them (but it was also after Stephen told them to do so, so maybe it should not be in the plus column).
- And as is her way, my daughter snapped a photo of the helmeted man on her cellphone as he left them.
So was he up to no good? Probably not, but obviously he was able to overpower two young girls.
Should a 12 and 13 year-old dismiss his odd behavior in their relative vulnerability? No.
Should they have assessed his first approach as a potential threat and moved away immediately? Yes.
Will they next time something similar happens? Most definitely.