Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Stranger Danger

Last month the trial started for Alejandro Avila, the man accused of kidnapping, molesting and killing five-year-old Samantha Runnion three summers ago. The murder happened when my son and I were living with my parents; Samantha lived a few miles from us. The story was on the news quite a lot, despite events happening relatively quickly—Samantha was kidnapped on July 15, 2002; her body was found the next day; Avila was arrested on July 19, 2002. A memorial service for Samantha was held at Crystal Cathedral and thousands of people attended. She became, as some murder victims do, a symbol of goodness and innocence.

So lately I've been thinking about Samantha and wondering how to teach my son about "stranger danger." Samantha knew about stranger danger—she fought against Avila and cried out, "Tell my grandmother!"—but was overpowered. Still, I want my son to know about stranger danger without losing the belief that people are mostly good.

I don't know if this is possible.

Last night I took my son out to dinner and to the store. I'd parked the car head-in against an ivy-covered hill separating the parking lot from the street. I was carrying a few bags and holding onto my son, and when I opened the trunk to put the groceries in, he dashed around the front of the car and hid in the ivy. Mere seconds had passed. I closed the trunk and couldn't see him and I panicked. He appeared immediately and I blew up. He was angry. I was furious...and scared shitless.

I packed him into the car and we drove away as I lectured him about not running away or hiding from Mommy. I told him there are some bad people who want to take kids and what if I never saw him again? I knew I was being clumsy about the whole thing and possibly scarring him for life...or something. He told me, "Mommy, I'm sad about you being angry at me." I started crying.

I told him I was really scared when I couldn't see him, and I'd thought he was lost. He told me, "Mommy, don't worry, because there are no bad people in the town." I told him most people are good, but there are some bad people and that's why he has to stay near Mommy when we're in the parking lot. I've been telling him for quite a while that "Big cars don't see little boys" and that's why he needs to hold my hand in parking lots, but this was something new and he wasn't buying it.

Naturally he wants to think everyone is good. Naturally he can't fathom what can happen to kids. I also know that kidnappings and murders are the exception, not the rule, but I want him to be safe and I don't want to scare him too much. When my siblings and I were kids, my dad told us that people who do bad things to kids often look like someone's dad or someone's grandpa, or someone's mom, etc. He showed us a picture in the newspaper, of a convicted child molester/murderer who looked like a plain ol' kindly older man. He told us the guy had left some kid in pieces in a trash can in the mountains. None of us ever forgot that. Sometimes I questioned my dad's heavy-handed teaching style, but he did get his point across, I will say that.

My son likes to run. He likes to run ahead of me when we're out, and sometimes he remembers to stop when I say "stop" or "red light" (our little "game"). Sometimes he doesn't remember. Last night before we got to the parking lot we were walking down an outdoor corridor of sorts and a guy was sitting in his car up ahead. My son wanted to runrunrun and all I could think was that I wouldn't be able to run fast enough to grab him if the guy up ahead pulled him into his car.

I know most people are good. Maybe I'm the one who's too scared. But want to be responsible and teach my kid how to be safe, and I know even then that doesn't guarantee his safety. This is troubling me.

As we turned onto our street, my son said, "Mommy, this is so useless! You're making me nutso and you're just being so wrong. There are no bad people! Maybe tonight when you go to sleep you can have some happy dreams."

I would love that.