It happened in a wealthy, North American community, where normalcy is defined by its elite private preparatory schools. It happened on a playground under a sky of sun and within reach of teachers making their watchful rounds. It happened to a nine-year-old boy, a third-grader. It happened when his classmate and supposed friend took advantage of their moment alone, asking to put his penis somewhere it didn’t belong.
That little boy, frightened by a question he hardly understood, ran away and told a teacher.
But how many haven’t?
A friend tells me about this boy who asked that horrifying question, and it’s the same little boy her son had resisted playing with late last fall. Her son hadn’t liked the way the other little boy had followed him so persistently and tried to keep him from playing from other friends at recess. Initially, my friend felt an instinctive sympathy for the outcasted boy with whom, it seemed, no one wanted to play. And as a Christian, she felt it almost her obligation to nudge her son towards friendship with him. Jesus loves everybody, you know.
And as she told me this several months ago, including other troubling details about the little boy (none, however, as serious as the story with which I began), I advised her to teach her son to listen to his gut. Even very young children are given an often reliable inner instinct about situations that are potentially harmful and people that are potentially threatening. Yes, they can be wrong, especially if they are conditioned by the plot lines of primetime television or network news. But, assuming for a moment, that your child doesn’t have specific, detailed knowledge of the horrible realities of our sin-sick world, and he comes home feeling “weird” about a teacher, a friend, someone’s father or older brother, you should pay their feelings some close attention, rather than immediately advising them to “love” that person or remain friends with him or her.
As parents, I believe we should teach our children to heed their inner alarm, rather than override it. We can help them understand that God has given them a mechanism of self-protection, and this source of protection is very often that “weird” feeling that creeps up when they are around unsafe people. The “weird” feeling should not be violated, although it’s tempting to want to advise them they should be “friends” with everyone. I tell my own children that we do not have to be friends with everyone: friendship is a commitment we make to people, and we cannot, nor should we, make that commitment to everyone. Our God-given responsibility is to be friend-ly, to show kindness, which is not to be confused with friendship.
Last night, as we sat at the kitchen table after dinner, I told the same playground story to my children, shaping the story much more vaguely than I did here. I did it to remind them that when they feel “weird” in a situation or around a certain person, they should immediately trust their feelings and tell us.
Running away because an alarm sounds might be the best thing they ever do.