Q: Last week, as we stood waiting to be seated for lunch at a popular pizza chain, a man began paying excessive attention to my 3-year-old and made quite a show in front of the other people in line. He asked her to tell him her name, her age, if she liked pizza, etc.
Usually a friendly child, she shied away from the attention, but the man persisted until both my daughter and I were uncomfortable and so was he.
I'm ashamed to say that I sensed his embarrassment and prompted my daughter to look him in the eye and answer his questions. She did so politely, and then to my horror he stroked her hair and offered her candy. That's when I realized the impressions this situation might leave on her -- and the potential danger.
After we were seated and alone, I told her it was okay to have talked with the man, but only because I was with her. I explained that if she'd been alone, or afraid, it would have been better to tell him that he was frightening her and to walk away.
As nice and sensible as that sounded then, I'm concerned about a 3-year-old's ability to comprehend it. I'm also sorry that I encouraged her to speak to the man after she, quite correctly, ignored him.
A: Your concern is well placed. The world is full of people who forget that they are strangers or figure that they wear their good intentions like a flag that says, "I'm safe." As a parent you have the right to make judgments and the duty to protect your child by insisting that strangers -- all strangers -- direct their conversations to you, and only speak to your child if introduced.
Fortunately, a child wants to be protected. Even the most outgoing children have built-in antennae that warn them to keep their distance from some people.
You saw an example of it when your little girl instinctively pulled back from the man's advances. Even before he petted her hair and offered her candy, she felt intruded upon. She talked with him when you gave her permission, because she trusted you. There was nothing wrong with that. Your follow-up talk gave her added reassurance: You told her you let her speak to the man because you were there but you also told her to trust her instincts.
The next time it happens, you'll want to be more direct, quietly telling the person that you don't allow your daughter to talk with strangers. This won't be easy to say, even if you keep your voice light and nonaccusatory, but you will spare yourself the anger you felt after the last encounter.
The basic lesson, of course, is that we are all in charge of our own bodies and none of us, emphatically including children, should have to kiss or shake hands or be patted by those who make us feel uncomfortable, including relatives.
Your respect for her rights and her sense of self-worth will help her follow her instincts. You can't be with her all the time, even now, so she must begin to depend on herself. This will keep her safe in years to come. The child who feels confident that she can take care of herself usually can.
You can build her confidence more by playing "What If?," a game that can cover all kinds of problems, including sexual ones, without taking them out of the context of life.
You do this when you ask such questions as: "What would you do if your ball runs into the street?"; "What if your parents get lost in the department store?" As tempting as it is to tell your child the answers, let her tell you instead, so you'll know what -- and how -- she thinks; if she needs it, you can give her a better solution that will make her safer. These and other ideas can be found in a good, nonhysterical book, The Safe Child Book, by Sherryll Kerns Kraizer (Dell; $5.95). It belongs on your parent bookshelf.
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