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On Parenting
Posted at 12:10 PM ET, 05/07/2012

A birthday party nightmare: Balancing safety and freedom

How easy it is to imagine my family in this situation.

My daughter is invited to her friend’s 10th birthday party. It’s a sleepover. Maybe I am not close with the parents, but I’ve seen them at school. I know them from their prominence in the community. Plus, several other girls will be there.

Even if I had a twinge of concern, I wouldn’t want to be that parent — the helicopter who isolates her children because of her own out-of-hand fears.

That’s why Allison Klein’s story in the Post last week about a well-known Falls Church political leader who was convicted of molestation was so cutting.
Michael Gardner (HO - Arlington County Sheriff's Office)

Michael Gardner was the former chairman of the Falls Church City Democratic Committee, and the husband of a former mayor and current councilwoman. He was hosting a birthday party for his daughter and her friends. The 9- and 10-year-olds were sleeping in the basement when he walked downstairs and molested at least two of them.

He “was a man who was supposed to protect them from people like this,” the prosecutor said. The DNA evidence and testimony was so strong against him that a jury recommended he serve 22 years in prison.

Reading about the episode made me wonder if I am too naïve to be raising daughters.

Then came along Michele Booth Cole’s clear-eyed response to the case published yesterday as a Local Opinion in the Post.

Cole is the executive director of the nonprofit Safe Shores — the D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center, which provides services to child victims of abuse and their families. In “A sleepover nightmare: How can we keep our children safe?” she advises parents to employ a series of preventative measures when it comes to a child’s safety.

Advice such as: Teach boundaries. Talk Openly. Know who is supervising your children.

She also suggests using accurate language when teaching young children about their bodies.

I had heard this from my daughters’ pediatrician too — just last week, in fact. Teaching the correct terminology apparently gives children more confidence in their ownership of their bodies. Cole explains that it also “sends a signal to any potential victimizer that someone has taken the time to arm that child with important information.”

Advice like this is helpful on two fronts:

It is simple and logical.

It also acknowledges a reality that can get lost in the aftermath of shocking child abuse stories: We do have a greater responsibility than previous generations who, for a variety of reasons, did not perceive the many dangers we have come to know exist for children.

And we can meet this responsibility by giving our children not less freedom, but more knowledge and more honesty.

This is not to say that the parents of Gardner’s victims are in any way at fault. Any of us could have been fooled by Gardner’s exterior.

Still, Cole’s advice empowers parents.

It seems to say that we are not helpless in the face of an ever-darkening world. We do not need to hide our children or watch them constantly. What we can do is help them better fend for themselves if and when they are confronted by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

How do you balance safety and freedom in your home?

Related Content:

The Leiby Kletzky killing and walking to school

Parents are the biggest obstacle to letting kids play, says study in Pediatrics

Not just the Penn State coaches: Most of us look away from abuse

By  |  12:10 PM ET, 05/07/2012

Tags:  Safety

 
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