Guest post: "My son was almost abducted – but I won't stop him walking home alone"
Although shaken, Ingrid Wassenaar is determined not to curtail her nine-year-old's independence
Posted on: Thu 21-Jan-16 15:36:26
(134 comments )
Just before Christmas, our nine-year-old son was nearly abducted.
It was 4.45pm, and he was walking home after Minecraft club. He had stopped to stroke a cat that lives near our street when a van drew up beside him. The man inside leaned across. "I've got some sweets," he said. "If you get in, you can have some."
Our son said, very politely, that he lived just round the corner and had an appointment to get back for. The man scowled at him and drove off.
Our boy watched to make sure the van was out of sight before running for home. When he got back, he was breathless. I suggested he use his inhaler – which was when he casually mentioned that he'd been running because a man in a van had offered him sweets.
It's odd how your brain works in situations like this: I was simultaneously shocked and blasé. Here was my son, safe at home – I couldn't believe that someone would be stupid enough to use the sweets line. In fact, I could barely comprehend that it had even happened.
I did know, however, that I had to raise the alarm. I dialled 999, and then posted a message onto a school Care and Share site. I emailed and phoned his school.
While I went through these steps, I felt like a bit player in a soap opera. I spend so much time persuading myself that it is extremely unlikely that anything bad will happen – avoiding scaremongering, hysteria, TV crime dramas and detective novels – that I could hardly believe that this had happened to our child, in our neighbourhood.
Am I frightened of our boy being approached again? Of course I am – it's our job to worry about our children – but it's also our job to let them go. Children need to seize their independence. How else will they learn how to handle it?
The immediate surge of comments responding to my post brought the impact of the situation home. It showed me how frightened people are of this kind of event – and it also confirmed our son's story: another boy had seen the same man just before, and had also been frightened enough to run home.
After speaking to the school and the police, news spread fast. I was repeatedly asked by other parents whether I would let him keep walking. To start with, I stoutly asserted that I would, aware of the look in other parents' eyes. As the days trickled by, though, both my son and I lost our nerve. I went back to picking him up.
After a few days, the investigating officer called. He suggested that perhaps it hadn't been what I thought it was. He said, "Can I ask what your son was doing, walking home at 4.45pm?" I couldn't take it in. Was he really insinuating that it was my fault that my child had been approached? That by encouraging my son to walk home independently, I was essentially setting him up to be assaulted?
I live with a constant feeling that I am being judged as negligent as I strive to give my children greater independence. The policeman's words only reinforced this worry. I'm so tired of the negative scrutiny levelled at mothers, explicitly and implicitly, bullying them into overprotective behaviour which, in the end, actually harms their children. And, at least in my experience, it does always seem to be mothers who are seen to be at fault. The policeman didn't say anything to my husband.
Am I frightened of our boy being approached again? Of course I am – it's my job to worry about our children, as it is my husband's – but it's also our job to let them go. Children need to seize their independence. How else will they learn how to handle it? Our children are taught 'stranger danger' – and they also instinctively know when someone's a wrong 'un. Our son took it in his stride. Why are we trying to take that victory away from him?
We are letting him walk alone again now. He's very happy, and has been thriving at school. Last week he ran to help an elderly lady with her heavy bag on his way home.
I don't think the streets are the preserve of a handful of predators: I think the streets are for everyone, especially our children. I'm going to live by the advice of the policewoman who came to our house the night of the attempted abduction. She looked my son in the eyes and told him not to stop walking to school: "Never forget," she said, "your independence goes forwards, not backwards."
By Ingrid Wassenaar
So heartened by this post. I too have never believed that paedophiles lurk round every corner - children are at much greater danger from their immediate circle of family and friends - and developing independence is such a crucial part of building self esteem.
Well done you both. Saddened by police's attitude, but not surprised.
Our school encourages children to walk, as preparation for secondary, but then sometimes they get all over-anxious about a child walking home, after an after school club. Very odd.
Two of my dd's friends were followed to school yesterday. It has shocked the school community obviously. My husband and I have been actively encouraging independence in our dd in this final year of primary as preparation for year 7. We are continuing those plans regardless. I am going to link this post to my whatsapp school mum group. Thank you Ingrid, it's very timely!
The ONLY bit of this I disagree with is the comment about children instinctively knowing when someone's a wrong 'un.
I don't think they necessarily do.
Have you looked at this from your son's perspective ? I think you need to be very careful that he will not be affected by this attempt. I was nearly abducted aged 8 and my parents were blasé about it, but it very much affected me for a very long time. He may not understand exactly what happened but he may develop fear or unusual behaviours afterwards, even years afterwards. I would hazard a guess that he thought this incidence was a silly man behaving in a silly way. I doubt he understands the horror that could have happened if he hadn't got away but he will at some point in the future. Just don't dismiss it.
I'm sorry but I wouldn't risk it...
I have had a few instances of this kind of occurrence, happening to me (not my kids)
When I was 11, walking home, a man pulled up at the end of my road (which was just at the end of the road from the school, thank god!) and asked me to get in his car to help him read a map. He tried to grab my arm but I was luckily outside a house of a known neighbour, I opened the gate and said that X will be able to help you (the neighbour) he got in his car and drove away!
He was reportedly spotted approaching a few girls.
Another was as an adult at university, I witnessed a man stalking two girls. I was with a male friend and were on the other side of the road, it just didn't sit right with me.
Just before they got to an alleyway, we saw he was following them both and shouted for the girls, and asked if they were okay (as they had noticed and gotten frightened of him) he turned into a side road and tried to wait for them and we both walked the girls home and reported him. Apparently a girl had been assaulted a week previously from the same school, I don't know if he was caught.
I honestly feel sick at the thought of these predators! And your little boy did the right thing OP.
Just to clarify as well, I also feel that the attempted abduction I detailed above is the reason for my adult social anxiety. It might be worth walking with your son, just for a while until he feels confident again if he is bothered by it.
No way would I risk it again. He had a very close call. How close do you need?
I've no intention of risking it either...
Oh come on he's only 9 and already had a close call! What are you thinking? He has many many years to be independent, please rethink.
Our children are taught 'stranger danger' – and they also instinctively know when someone's a wrong 'un.
Ask a child what a 'stranger' or a 'wrong un' looks like.
My the 12 year old daughter knew a man who went on to murder two of her friends, she liked this man and trusted him. Why did she like him? Because he rescued a baby blackbird from a courtyard at the school where he worked and she was a pupil. Why did she trust him? Because he seemed kind and he was employed in a position of trust. Her response after finding out he had murdered two friends? "But he didn't look like a bad man mum" Apparently "bad men" look like the mug shots. Strangely enough once this "bad man" appeared in his own mug shots he looked completely evil.
We do a huge disservice to our children, and ultimately to ourselves by focusing on stranger danger.
The kind of story that we heard about growing up in the 70s. "Come and see some puppies" said the weird looking man, who was a loner, and drove round in his brown cardigan smelling a bit funny"
How many children are abducted and abused by strangers like that, compared to how many are abused within the 4 walls of home by their grandad? Children need to be taught self awareness, self respect, and that even though they are children, if they don't like what Uncle Jimmy is asking them to do, then they don't do it and they tell someone. And we need to listen to them.
(I'm guessing I know which school you are talking about Hell, and that's spot on. He looked like a pussy cat until the mugshots. Awful)
It also presupposes that a small child will be in a position to simply walk away from a potential abduction if they identify a wrong un - a fairly risky assumption??
I can't understand if your child has nearly been abducted why in the hell would you risk it again (there's every possibility that next time he just grabs the boy and puts him in the van) if your that adamant that you don't walk with him, then at least make sure he's with a group of friends, not bloody alone.
I know that children are statistically more at risk from friends and family than strangers but in this case it was a stranger who approached the boy so surely being more wary of strangers would make sense? Especially since you now know for a fact that a dodgy stranger is in your area trying to abduct children!
I'm sorry but you're mad. Totally mad. Of course children need to become independent and encouraged to do so, but a mere matter of weeks after an attempted abdication and he's walking home alone again? How can you rest easy at home? This is highly unlikely to happen again but I'd have my heart in my mouth right now.
I do not and cannot understand your point of view. I have a 9 year old boy myself and am firmly of the opinion that it's still very little and there's years to foster independence. What's the rush?
I also have a 17 year old and can assure you that they don't remain needy and reliant on you if that's your concern
I urge you to re think whatever point you're attempting to make
And I think asking why a 9 year old child is walking home alone is a perfectly valid question. You talk as if he's 13.
I remember reading the "The Willow Street Kids" aged about 10 or 11 (true stories making children aware of risks from other people). It had stories about children being mugged, bullied, flashed at, receiving obscene phone calls, and so on - all very sensible stuff. But I remember feeling a bit blase about the chapters about children not liking being touched by their uncle in a certain way, and told "let's keep it a secret"; I'd never heard of anything like that, and I didn't believe things like that actually happened! It might have taken experiencing the reality of it to make me believe it. Although adults talk a lot about "stranger danger", they (sensibly) don't tell children what exactly they're really afraid of.
I agree with the "now more wary of strangers after the incident" approach. A bit of time may be needed for everyone to calm down after the incident, as they'll all be shaken up, but doesn't this mean he'd be more aware of risk, not less, and all the more prepared? If he then never regained his independence, he could grow up with severe confidence issues.
"Keep calm and carry on" springs to mind.
Consider an example of something "shaking up" that can happen as an adult: a minor car accident, or near miss (but where nobody is hurt). At the time, you feel awful. For a while, you realise just how vulnerable you (or others) are in a car. You might feel like never driving ever again; and indeed some people never do drive again after a minor prang.
But the feeling usually passes, and if anything it makes you more careful from then on.
Also I'm surprised nobody's said "he's more likely to be injured crossing the road, than abducted" yet.
Especially if he's running to get away from trouble and not looking where he's going.
Being aware of risk won't help if a grown man tries to force him into a van, though.
He's too young. I've a nine year old and would not allow this. I don't think you were wrong in the first place but you took the risk and something happened. I really don't understand why you would risk it again just to prove a point. I don't admire you're stance I think it's stubborn and stupid.
A lot of the time it's to late 'after the incident' though...
"better safe than sorry" springs to my mind
And trying to turn this into a vendetta against mothers as opposed to fathers cuts no ice with me.