What Could Parents Learn from “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Cladwell

Talking to Strangers is the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell. I started reading it with the expectation of learning new perspectives for interactions with strangers as suggested by the title. But as usual, my parenting lens are on and I ended up deeply engrossed by Chapter 5 – Case Study: The Boy in the Shower.

First, may I warn you that this is not a light-hearted subject. You may find it uncomfortable as you read on.

Gladwell introduces the concept of “Default to Truth” at the beginning of the book. In its simplest form, the term means we human beings tend to believe what is being said by others, including strangers, without doubting it in the first instance. You could probably recall a lot of examples where things went wrong when people are defaulting to truth. This is one of the reasons why so many deception cases exist. The victims are not stupid, their brains are just wired this way.

In Chapter 5, we saw the gruesome details of a child molest case where a witness bumped into the most inappropriate scene with a football coach and an underage boy in a shower. The witness, a graduate assistant, didn’t intervene. Instead, he just called his parents after leaving the place quietly and reported the coach to senior management of the school next day. Apparently, the coach was a legend and everyone loved him. Almost no one could bring themselves to believe that the coach was a pedophile. Even the witness doubted himself. So everyone looked fervently for excuses to rationalize what had happened. It was only after 10 years that the coach was finally arrested as many more victims surfaced.

Now, some may say this is ridiculous. If they were the witness, they would have jumped right in to protect the child. If you have the same thought, I suggest you to put yourself in the shoes of the assistant, walk through the situation and think again. In reality, we all go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. We don’t want to be “over-sensitive” and wrongly accuse someone causing embarrassment to others or ourselves.

But what if the minors we are talking about are our own children?

Because of our nature to default to truth, we don’t suspect everyone that comes into contact with our children. More often than not, we even entrust our kids to adults whom we like, trust, admire or respect.

No matter how unwilling or uncomfortable you are, I strongly suggest you to look into the case of Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team doctor who have sexually assaulted over 250 young women and girls from 1992 to 2015. In some cases, when Nassar committed the crimes, the victims’ parents were right outside the treatment room. These parents were tormented. Some even refused to believe what had happened because it was too painful for them to deal with. The guilt they felt was indescribable.

Not long ago, a similar story popped up again in a documentary accusing child molestation by the late Michael Jackson called “Leaving Neverland”. For me, the saddest part of the film is the interview of the victims’ parents. When they were presented with the alleged acts that were done to their then young boys, they were in total disbelief. They were then swept by utter sadness and remorse. They couldn’t even come to term that they had endangered their children by allowing them to stay alone with a grown-up man, who happened to be Michael Jackson.

The good news, though, is most of us would never experience such horrendous incidents in our lives. Nonetheless, as the primary caretakers of our children, we must stay cautious and be aware that true devils do exist among us. To protect our defenseless children under our wings, there are some things we can do:

1. Train ourselves against our tendency to default to truth. HOW? ALWAYS be vigilant whenever 1-on-1 contact with a child may happen. Take steps to avoid such possibilities. In fact, when we show that we care, we can often fend off the offenders since they will only go after easy prey;

2. Teach your child from a young age to recognize inappropriate and suspicious contacts. Discuss scenarios and teach them how to react. Encourage them to always voice out their discomfort or suspicion to you or another trusted adult;

3. Be watchful for the slightest change of behaviour in your child. They may not be able to tell us right from the beginning, but their anxiety and stress will likely be expressed through the changes in their behaviour or attitude; and

4. Finally, DO NOT ALLOW yourself to blindly entrust your child, regardless of gender, into someone’s hands.

Once we have adopted this attitude, just relax. There is absolutely no need to be paranoid. Most people are still perfectly normal.

~ Joeymum

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