As a parent you know that you have to tell your child not to talk to or take anything from strangers. You go through all the scenarios and practice yelling “NO” and running away, finding you and telling you everything. As there seems to be more dangers these days, we also know that even when they are with us we have to be more guarded and prepare ourselves for some unwanted scenario. I try not to live in fear, I try to stay aware, and I do my best to keep my kids safe, or at least I thought I was.
The incident I’ll describe actually happened two months ago, but it took me awhile to process it, to get over the emotions to be able to write about it. I actually only started to write this post because I read about another incident that occurred in my hometown, at my former place of employment, at another place where I thought my kids were safe. I realized how much more vigilant and aware we all need to be. In light of what happened, I thought I’d share my story.
My boys are on the local swim team and I have to drive about 20 minutes to get them to practice. When it’s just me, I usually go in with them and workout or grade papers while I wait. However, sometimes I have my two younger daughters with me and so we will go run errands or I try to find something to entertain them like stopping at the library, the park, or the pet store. This particular Sunday night, none of those were an option, so I pulled into Burger King. It has a play area, so my husband and I ordered two pops and let them loose. We had done this before, we thought nothing of it. They run around and we sit and talk- literally five feet from them. We can see them 90 percent of the time and we can hear them all the time. So that’s what we did, then and other times before then, but not since.
My three-year-old is very friendly and we have had the talk about strangers, read books about strangers (I love the Berenstain Bears version) and thus she is cautious of adults. But what we learned that day, is she’s not when it comes to older kids. She has two older brothers who she adores and wants to hang out with all the time. She talks about having friends all the time. So when she was climbing through the play area and sliding back down saying she made some friends, I assumed it was just talk. There were a few other kids running around with parents doing the same thing we were- sitting at their table close by, talking, eating, checking their phones, or reading. We saw the other kids running around- we thought nothing of it. Then, I noticed that my daughter kept climbing to a specific part of the play are and talking to someone I couldn’t see. I told her to come down and again she yelled to me that she had friends up there. It seemed weird, but not too weird, so I told her to keep moving. When she came down I asked her about it and she told me there were to girls up there who were her new friends. When the girls climbed out of the play area- they were middle school aged. They had coffees and phones and had been sitting up in a secluded area of the play structure. I thought it was odd that they were there by themselves and just sitting up there but I still didn’t think much of it. We packed the girls up, picked up the boys from practice and started to head home, when my phone rang.
Now, I live in a small town and we were at the Burger King two towns over, but it’s still a small area and it seems as though everyone knows everyone. The call was from a relative who saw my three year-old daughter on her daughter’s Snapchat. It turns out, those girls were up in the play structure recording my three year-old and posting it! Now it was nothing lewd or inappropriate but still, they were asking her questions, recording her answers and posting it online. Like I said, she loves the idea of friends and they picked up on that right away, asking her “Are we friends?” and recording her saying yes and telling them her name. I was outraged to say the least. We whipped the car around and headed right back to Burger King. I was shaking. I don’t know what else they said to her, I don’t know how many times they posted, I had a had a million questions. How could they? What were they thinking? Why hadn’t I noticed and done something? Why would they even think it was OK? But, what worried me the most was that they took advantage of her innocence, of her wanting to have friends, to get her to talk to them and it felt predatory, even if that’s not how they meant it.
Let’s pause here. Yes, I post pictures of my kids to my social media, sometimes videos too, but that is my choice. With my older kids, I ask them if its OK, and it’s usually some type of accomplishment or a simple smiling face. But, these are my kids and I get to make that choice, not someone else. She didn’t know she was being recorded and even if she did, she is nowhere near old enough to give permission. What they posted- I didn’t get to see it or approve it (not that I could have) I had no choice, no voice. I was livid.
We turned the car around immediately and headed back to Burger King to confront the girls. They weren’t there when we went back, but my husband alerted the other parents who were there and then he told the manager. We figured out who the girls were and reported them to the police. Although the police couldn’t actually do anything, they did go to their houses and talk with them. And that was basically the end of it. There was nothing else I could do. I was grateful for what the police did, but I was still left feeling uneasy about the whole thing.
I teach middle school, so I know that at this age kids’ brains are still developing, they are impulsive and they don’t always think through the consequences of their actions. I know that kids don’t always understand how far reaching, permanent, and how scary social media and the internet can be. I think from my reaction that night in the car and the days that followed, my older kids got a glimpse into those effects and will think twice themselves. But, what now? I had to have a long talk with all of my kids about what to do when someone points a camera or a phone at you. I even went back to Burger King to speak with the manager. I thought they should have a sign about the age appropriateness of the play structure or no cell phone use in the area, or something. The manager, while concerned, said it ultimately wasn’t his decision, but that incidents like these are the reason many restaurants are removing their play areas. I know a sign won’t completely stop people, but it might deter some, or it might make a parent like me think twice and monitor their kids more closely.I called corporate and they basically wrote down my concerns to send up the ladder, but I still haven’t heard back. It’s shame that something worse might have to happen before we see any changes, but it seems like that’s the way it is these days. For now, I continue to talk to my kids about strangers, cameras, and safety, off and online. I’m not sure what else I can do.