Rethinking Stranger Danger: Talking to My Son About Human Trafficking

I feel like it wasn’t long ago I was talking to my son about boundaries and personal space and the proper way to play with other people. I didn’t want him to become a statistic on the heels of the #metoo movement.

It was a harmless and inconsequential conversation, to him. He heard me. He understood, but he didn’t understand why we were having the conversation.

Despite that, the greater purpose of our #metoo conversation eluded him.

I was thankful that our conversation wouldn’t take away a tiny piece of his innocence. I want his eyes open, but not to the ugliness of the world. Not yet. The eyes of a 9-year-old are supposed to see the beauty and wonder, not the hate and darkness.

When I turn on the news or scroll through Facebook and see the smiling faces of the kids taken from their families, the missing kids, I know I will have to thieve again. To steal a little more of my son’s precious innocence. To open his big, virtuous eyes to the ugliness and fear.

It was time to talk to my son about trafficking.

Rethinking Stranger Danger: Talking to My Son about Human Trafficking

While not all missing children are abducted or fall victim to trafficking, the prevalence of trafficking has increased tremendously, especially in our humble, quaint, and – let’s face it – naïve little Iowa.

I live in a small town. My children have known little else than the streets of our community and the people within it. I’ve done my part to teach them the neighborly way. Being cordial with strangers. Saying hello, waving, smiling, making eye-contact, exchanging pleasantries. That’s what you do in a small town. That’s the Iowa way. And I haven’t ever thought twice about it.

“Who was that?” my kids ask when I’d make small talk with someone at the gas station or grocery store.

“I’m not sure,” I would usually say. “I was just being nice.”

While these habits, in my eyes, help teach them little social quirks that will come in handy as they grow older, these habits can also make them prey to monsters.

And what’s more, it’s summer. My son is an active, social 9-year-old boy. I send him off into the world daily. He hops on his bike and he’s gone. He rides to the parks, the pool, his friend’s homes, and he does this all alone. Last summer, he did the same. And I devoted little time to imagining just how wrong things could go for him, for me. Last summer, my biggest fear was him getting struck by a car or caught in the rain.

This summer, my fears are far more sinister and unbearably worrisome.

So, a conversation had to be had. It was unavoidable. And even though I’ve talked to him about stranger-danger on more than one occasion, I’ve never had to prepare him to avoid begin groomed.

Grooming is what traffickers are doing now. Traffickers have evolved for the times. They find ways to connect with potential victims and select targets. It could be on the playground, it could be on a social media app. Whatever the case, however they connect, the danger is real. Now, it’s not just men trafficking and grooming their victims. We also have to be leery of women and children recruiting our children.

Imagine that your child is approached by a woman at a park or a child on the sidewalk. Just try to imagine how your child would react. If my son were approached by another child on the sidewalk, and that child was asking my son questions like ‘where do you live?’, ‘how old are you?’, ‘are you alone?’, my son wouldn’t think twice about answering that child.

Now imagine if this same child told your son or daughter that they just got a puppy or a kitty. Imagine if your child is invited to go see this new puppy or kitty. Would your child go?

At the beginning of the summer, I’m almost certain my son would have gone wherever there was an adorable puppy to play with.

I feel secure in his understanding of these dangers now. Together, we looked at pictures of Jake Wilson and Mollie Tibbetts. We went through our stranger-danger rules. I asked him not to talk to ANYONE he doesn’t know. Not a man, not a woman, not a child. We made rules for checking in and keeping me updated on where he is and who he’s with. We role-played where I asked him what he should do if this happens or if that happens.

I hugged him and kissed him. I told him just how much I loved him.

And then, he went off into the world. He clipped his helmet to his head and got on his bike. We smiled and waved at each other as he rode out of sight. 

One of the most informative and eye-opening articles I’ve read about trafficking and grooming can be found here.

Living in total fear doesn’t have to be our reality. We can live with vigilance by way of educating ourselves.

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