Two weeks ago, I was standing in line at a kids’ event at the mall with my two daughters. There were bright lights, yelling kids, and miserable parents everywhere. I was dazed and wondering why I had thought this was a good idea.
All of a sudden, my eight-year-old yanked my arm and started to whisper. Her eyes were big and urgent and I had to lean over to hear what she was telling me.
“That man keeps staring at me,” she whispered loudly. “The man RIGHT THERE in the blue shirt and the hat.”
I looked up prepared to kill this man. However, my alarm quieted as soon as I saw him. It was just a dad waiting on a different line with his young daughter. He wasn’t even looking at us, but taking a picture of his little girl.
I was about to say, “Oh honey, he’s just a dad with his daughter. It’s OK,” but I stopped myself just in time.
He looked harmless to me, but I hadn’t FELT him looking at me.
There are all different kinds of feelings that you can get from a look and they can be good or bad, but there is a unique feeling when someone looks at you and something ISN’T RIGHT. It’s a bad feeling that goes through your whole body.
I felt it the first time when I was in 7th grade. I was late to a class and my French teacher caught me alone in the hallway. He had always been kind of creepy -- he enjoyed telling our French class about growing up in Paris and how he liked to drive through the red light districts because the prostitutes would open their coats as he drove by -- but this was different. He said he wanted to ask me something and he blocked me from trying to walk to my class.
“Why are you always so quiet,” he whispered and stared at me as he tried to back me against a wall. I knew something was very wrong, and I was scared. I didn’t answer him, but pushed past him and ran away.
Looking back, I think it’s awesome that even as an awkward, insecure 13-year-old, I trusted myself over his authority as my teacher and was able to defy what he was telling me to do (to stay where I was and to answer his question).
Remembering this, I suddenly knelt down and looked at my daughter. This was the first time that she felt that something was wrong with the way someone was looking at her.
Instead of reassuring her, I told her, “That’s good. You should always listen to your feelings. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable you need to get away from them right away and go tell mommy or daddy or a teacher. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they say. All that matters is that it feels wrong to you.”
She listened to me carefully and then nodded and agreed.
I have often wondered how to explain to my children that most people are good, but there are bad people out there and you can’t tell just by looking at them -- they could even be someone you know and trust.
That day at the mall, I realized that the best I can do is to teach my children to listen to their gut and to show them that I will always listen to them -- and believe them -- when they tell me that something isn’t right.
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