This is not a topic that I really want to write about, but I feel compelled to given some recent events that have happened in the inner west and north west of Sydney.
We need to have a conversation about ‘stranger danger’.
It’s particularly important to discuss this because there have been a number of incidents in Strathfield, Drummoyne and Hunter’s Hill over the past week that are quite alarming. This follows a spate of attempted abductions in Hornsby, Thornleigh, Westleigh, Turramurra, Wahroonga, Pymble, St Ives, Coogee, Cambridge Park and Colyton earlier in the year.
For my Sydney readers, here are a few of the awful details.
On Monday, at 8.35 am, a ten year old girl and her brother were riding their scooters to school, when a man driving a white van approached the girl. He offered to drive her to school if she got inside the van. She made her way to a friend’s house and the man drove away. The police describe the man as being of Caucasian appearance, aged in his forties, with a medium build. He was unshaven with a long pony tail. The white van had some minor damage and had black and yellow rego plates.
I think it’s important to discuss this not just because of these incidents in Sydney, but also because school holidays can be a time when kids are home alone. Up to one in five kids under 15 will be left alone at home during the school holidays. So if you were thinking of leaving your children unattended for the school holidays, consider whether you could make alternative arrangements.
Unfortunately, predators aren’t just driving the streets in vans, they’re also at the other end of the your child’s computer.
We were always taught about ‘stranger danger’ when we were kids. At that time,the safety house program was in operation. We were told to go to a safety house if we were ever approached by a stranger.
I have a very strong childhood memory of getting a car with a stranger, even though I knew it was the wrong thing to do.
I had tripped over and was crying, when a car stopped and a lady offered me a lift home. I said ‘no’ two or three times, but she insisted. She even said, ‘I know where you live. You live in that white house next to the café, don’t you?” She persuaded me to get in the car, even though I knew it was the wrong thing to do.
I cried the whole way home and I can’t tell you how relieved I was to get safely out of the car.
So even if your children know that they shouldn’t get in a car with a stranger, adults can be very persuasive and children may not have the confidence to keep say ‘no’. That’s exactly what the research shows – that children know the safety messages, but when placed in the situation, they are still more likely to give in.
So what do parents need to discuss with their children to make sure they know what is or isn’t safe?
Fortunately I was able to hear my daughter’s principal talk about this with the children last week. The main message to give kids is that they should never go anywhere with an adult that they don’t know. He may say something like, ‘Mum’s been taken sick and she said I should pick you up today.’ Or ‘I’ve lost my dog, I think he went that way, can you help me look for him?’
Tell your children that you will never send a stranger to collect them.
Also tell your kids, ‘When you are on your own don’t talk to people you don’t know. Don’t get in a car with someone you don’t know. And if a car stops and you don’t know the person inside, keep walking.’
This may sound obvious, but it’s also important to make sure you know where you child is at all times. Make sure your child doesn’t walk the streets alone. At least get them to walk to and from school in a group of children. It’s also a good idea to have a designated route that they have to stick to. That way you know where to look for them. You can make sure they take busier streets and that they know where there are safe places to stop along the way if they need to, like at shops, service stations, a police station, the library.
It’s obviously important to talk about these things, but you also don’t want to alarm them, or make them think that adults can’t be trusted.
My daughter’s school principal told the kids that they should tell their parents if an adult makes them feel uncomfortable or ‘yucky’ and that they should also learn to trust their instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, then it’s probably not. At the same time, they also need to know that most adults are good, and that there are lots of people who can help them if they need help. So talk with your children about who they know that they can trust. It’s good for children to know that there are lots of people looking out for them, not just you.
How do you discuss stranger danger with your kids? Do you let them walk to school alone? Do recent events in Sydney concern you?
I know that those of us who are parents can be a bit painful to our friends without kids.
They want to catch up with us at lunch, but we can’t do lunch because that’s when our toddler has their nap. Or they want to go out at night, but we can’t stay out late because we’re paying a babysitter by the hour.
Sometimes it can feel like we expect everything to revolve around our kids.
I remember how that feels – when you don’t have kids, but everyone else expects you to make your plans around their children. But what I want to talk about today is at the other end of the spectrum.
Here’s what I want to say: It’s not a crime to be a kid. Kids have as much right to be in the world as anybody else.
I started thinking about this when my usually mild-mannered sister had a run-in with a senior gentleman while borrowing books from the local library. Her kids were swiping the books under the scanner one by one, and being children, they were probably a little slower than an adult might be, but they weren’t causing any trouble (for once!).
Suddenly the man behind them said, “Come on then, get out of the way.”
Shocked she turned around and said, “I’m sorry, we haven’t actually finished yet.” Then he said, “This isn’t a playground you know.” When she explained that she was just teaching her kids how to do it, he said, “Well go back to kindergarten then,” and stormed off.
The implication is that children don’t really have a right to be in the library and that they should only be in a playground or a kindergarten.
Personally, I think borrowing books from the library is a sign of good parenting, but for whatever reason, this gentleman seemed to think it was infringing on his rights.
Fortunately, nothing like that has ever happened to me, but I have sometimes been on the receiving end of some subtle comments that I didn’t quite know how to take. A week or so ago, my sister and I did a charity walk from Cammeray to Balmoral Beach with our kids. (It’s quite a long way for a 2 year old, a 4 year old and a 5 year old to walk, so I was pretty proud of them.) After the walk we caught the bus back to where the car was parked. Between us, we had two prams, a baby and 3 kids so it took us a while to get off the bus and as we did so an older gentleman, rolled his eyes and said, ‘What an expedition!’
He may not have meant anything by it, but it made me feel like there was something illegal about going out with children on a bus.
After all that exercise we stopped for coffee and cake at Cammeray Stockland. For those who haven’t been there, it’s a nice little shopping centre built around an open piazza. In the middle of the piazza there’s a low fountain pool, at ground level with just a few inches of water in it. These days there are lots of parks with water features that kids are allowed to play in, like Bicentennial Park at Homebush or Newington Armoury or the new Water Park at Darling Harbour. So we thought this was something they’d built for the kids and we were happily letting them splash around in it. It was only when it was time to leave that we noticed a tiny little engraved plaque that said ‘Standing in the fountain is prohibited.”
To me, that is like putting a big pile of cupcakes in the middle of a room but not letting the children eat one. Or teasing a dog with a juicy bone, but not letting them have it.
It’s just not very considerate of children. There are lots of ways they could have made that fountain less appealing to kids if they didn’t want them to play in it – they could have raised or lowered it so it wasn’t right on ground level, they could have put a Perspex fence round it, or made it deeper.
Whoever built that fountain has totally forgotten what it’s like to be a kid – how lovely it is to splash around in something like that.
Especially when there was absolutely nothing else in the space for children to play in!
I’m not saying that everything should be built or created to cater for children, but just that kids have as much right as anybody else to use the library or ride the bus or to be in a public square. So just as we consider the needs of disabled people or the elderly when we design public spaces… we should also consider the needs of children. They’re legitimate members of society.
After all, not everybody will be an adult. Not everybody will make it to old age. But everybody on the planet was once a child.
Well I’ve reached the end of my first week as a real published author!
If you somehow missed the news, my first picture book launched exactly a week ago.
The kids did a colouring competition, which was judged by our MC – the illustrator’s hubby, 2012 Archibald finalist, Ben Hedstrom. For those who saw the exhibition earlier in the year, Ben did the painting of Sydney band Boy and Bear titled ‘Annandale Band Meeting’. I noted with amusement that the little girl who won the colouring-in competition was the daughter of Thirsty Merc drummer, Karl Robertson, whose wife Diana was performing at the launch. I was glad their daughter won the colouring competition because both she and her sister have food allergies. I must admit I’m secretly hoping this connection might precipitate a painting of Thirsty Merc in the next Archibald’s… We’ll have to wait and see!
The kids had lots of fun decorating some monkey cookies and enjoyed the beautiful cupcakes by Bee Allergy Friendly, who make egg-free, nut-free and dairy-free cupcakes and biscuits. Baking genius Mel Ross, shared with us that she started her business because her first child is allergic to seven of the eight most common allergens. “It was impossible to find any treats they could eat,” she said, “So I decided to make them myself. It wasn’t long before I was taking orders from other parents.”
She said the best part of her job is working with families to find solutions that work for them. “We don’t want to use a cookie-cutter approach to managing allergies,” she said. I was thrilled that Dr Pickford was able to be there on the night because I think the work she does is so vital.
But now that the party is packed up, and the champagne has stopped flowing, the hard grind of promoting the book and getting the food allergy message out to the community has begun. (Many authors had warned me that getting the book published is the easy bit – the hard bit is getting it to its readers!)
This morning I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that Australian children have one of the highest rates of food allergies in the world.
Speaking at the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy Conference in New Zealand this week, Professor Johan Garssen admitted that scientists really have no idea why allergies are becoming more common, getting worse and lasting longer into adulthood. He said, “If I could answer why this is happening, I would win a Nobel prize.”
What I do know is that Aussie Mums, Dads and teachers are on the front line, trying to negotiate the mindfield that is living with a food allergy.
There are no simple answers and like Dr Pickford said at the launch, there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach that will work for everyone. What I tried to show in the book is that Marty, his Mum and his friends have to work together to keep Marty safe.
With a growing number of allergic children in our community, the burden of care can’t fall onto the parents alone. We all have to come to the party to keep our kids safe.