OPINION: I’m a paranoid parent and proud of it
With a recent spate of reports about attempted kidnappings in Pretoria hitting close to home, literally, I'd like to reaffirm that I don't ever apologise for being a paranoid and overprotective parent, and if you have little children, neither should you.
A few years back, when my eldest was about three, a woman approached us at a fabric store in a shopping centre close to home. She was trying to chat to my little girl and kept commenting about how cute my child was.
I was trying to choose the pattern and length of fabric I wanted while also keeping my fidgety child close to me, so I just smiled and said, "Thank you," and turned back to what I was doing.
Once I had paid, the woman also exited the store and walked alongside us and asked me if my daughter went to preschool. When I replied that she did go to school, the woman became persistent and there were follow-up questions: what is the name of the school, in which area and was I looking for a new school. The questioning happened as I continued walking, holding my daughter's hand firmly, in a brisk, "I'm not interested in what you have to sell," way... the way you'd walk when you encounter the desperate perfume promoters at a mall or those ever-friendly Hubbard groupies.
I was already on alert and getting annoyed and nervous because the store was in a quiet area of the shopping centre. I firmly said "No".
The woman persisted and said she would like to give me a pamphlet about the school that she owned but she did not have any in her handbag and we should go with her and get one from her car.
I said, "No, thank you", walked away quickly and drove straight home.
I did not contact the shopping centre management to report the incident. I thought that it was a non-starter since nothing had 'really' happened. However, I wish I had, regardless of how crazy it may have made me sound.
Once I got home and I played back the incident, I asked myself: What would I have done if the woman had someone else with her, or if we were overpowered, or if she/they had followed us home? Scary thoughts that make you realise that you have to be paranoid, always.
I still remember that feeling of alarm coupled with confusion as I realised that something was not right and if something similar happens in future, I will definitely be more vocal and tell the person to f*** off!
Most parents of active youngsters probably know that feeling of panic when your child is right next to you in a store/park/mall one second, and you are paying for something, or someone stops to ask you for directions, and the next second your child is not beside you. Or worse, when your child runs off to the play area at the local family restaurant and when you go to fetch her to eat, and you can't find her anywhere. Your heart beats faster, but suddenly you have superhuman focus as you scan the area for your child.
Fortunately, often the panic is momentary and hopefully few and far between. You spot her just behind a tree or clothes rack giggling as she hides from you. Or you see her inside that daft jungle gym with little twisty tunnels that forces the restaurant to hire an especially petite child-minder so that she can climb into those tunnels whenever a child gets stuck. You hug your child, and then scold her, then hug her again and hold on tightly as your blood pressure normalises.
My husband and I teach our children how to react if someone tries to 'steal' them and what they should do if they get lost - 21st Century Parenting 101. It's not about frightening them into clinging to you wherever you go. It's about being realistic and knowing that bad things can happen anywhere, and to anyone, regardless of social status, suburb or country. It's about teaching them survival skills as little human beings so that they can ensure their own safety if you're not around, and maybe when they are older, it might reduce those heart-thudding moments when you try calling your teen who you dropped off at the mall with friends three hours ago but their phone is off.
We've done role-playing with our girls from a young age - we practise screaming, really LOUDLY and they excel at this - ask our neighbours. I know that they can kick very effectively - one much overlooked pro of sibling rivalry. I tell them that they can kick and scream and bite if ANYONE, a known or unknown person, hurts them or does anything to them that they are not comfortable with and they have no other way of stopping the person. It's okay to fight back if your words are not helping and if there is no one near-by to help. Be a lion!
Hopefully, those survival skills paired with my husband's and my protectiveness will see them safely (and us sanely) through to their adulthood when they leave the nest. Then, we'll just have to activate the trackers we secretly inserted behind their ears at birth.
Sholain Govender-Bateman is a Pretoria-based new media journalism lecturer, former The Star and Pretoria News journalist and editor of magazines. She is mum to two gorgeous girls, Isobel and Aishwari, and wife to Barry Bateman. Follow her on Twitter: @sholain