On Parenting from a Safe Distance

On Parenting from a Safe Distance

I read a statistic recently, and it burrowed into the part of my brain in charge of how I perceive humanity. It also forced me to think about how I parent – especially my daughters.  It was from RAINN – the Rape, Abuse & Incest  National Network. On average, a human being in the United States is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds.  As if that statistic wasn’t heinous enough on its own merit, it had a qualifier that distressed me even more – that number only counts people ages 12 and up.  I don’t want to imagine how that number would change if the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey coverage included victims of all ages.  It doesn’t – on their own page they state that “persons age 12 or older were interviewed for the NCVS”.  The survey methodology of speaking directly to people about whether and how they might have been victimized is (in my opinion) probably the best way to find out this information. What this means is that the report is taken from first-hand accounts. What it also means is that children under the age of 12 have no voice in this report. I imagine (with great sadness) that if children under 12 were added into this number, it might well double the reported frequency of sexual assaults, thus making it much more likely that every minute of every day at least one person in the United States is sexually assaulted.  This is, of course, speculation on my part.  The “every 107 seconds” number is cause enough for alarm.

RAINN also reported that, according to the same study, the sexual assault rate of “one person every 107 seconds” is half  that of the same report from 1993. As of 2013 – the most recent NCVS report at the time of the article’s writing – it was 49% lower. No reason for this progress is given by RAINN, and I am not even remotely qualified to postulate on why that number dropped so dramatically over the past 20 years.

The decrease, while noteworthy, still represents an enormous number of sexual assault victims every year in the United States (most of them girls, young women and adult women).  This worries me because I have three amazing, beautiful and gifted daughters. But unlike newer parents of millennial offspring,  I effectively slid sideways into the realization that there was such a high sexual assault rate in the United States. My first daughter was born in 1991, while I was still in college. Access to information about the likelihood of my child becoming a victim of sexual assault was certainly accessible, had I been willing or interested in digging through the stacks to find a study published in a tome buried in the campus library somewhere.

Snarky note: I never took any statistics classes because even then I had too much respect for my own humanity, and it was my understanding that frequent consumption of statistics curricula had the same deadening and dehumanizing effect on the brain as massive doses of cocaine.

My second daughter was born in 1998.  By that time, it was not uncommon for households to have some form of online access, and the early iterations of the Internet had started to become somewhat ubiquitous. Around that time, I left a great job working for Gateway 2000, and I was beginning my career as a network engineer, installing ISDN and 56k Leased Lines for schools and businesses. I had my own dial-up Internet access at home. With that access, I started to find things out.  Google was gestating in a garage somewhere in Menlo Park, and for most people, the Internet was at the time primarily just aggregate services like AOL and CompuServe.  In line with the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle on cable TV, these portal sites would periodically delve into the stories of the “milk carton kids” – children most of us knew in the pre-Amber Alert days only by their pictures on the sides of half-gallon cardboard milk cartons.  The stories were frightening (and, as a side note, I firmly believe that they led to the inevitable evolution of the Helicopter Mom – but that’s a different story for a different time).

Having been taken away from my abusive and neglectful mother at a young age, and having been raised primarily in foster homes, and then in my teenage years by the Milton Hershey School, I knew abuse existed, and I knew it first and second hand.  I had no idea how prolific it was however, until the information age reached critical mass in the early 2000’s.  My 3rd daughter was born in 2000, and by that time, I was so overwhelmed with news reports from all over the country (and the world) about child sexual predation (by way of programs like “To Catch a Predator”, for example that I wanted to lock my (at that time, very young) daughters away in a tower somewhere and guard them day and night with a battalion of my fellow Marines.

I’m not sure when it happened, but I started to evolve emotionally as a parent as I watched my daughters grow into these incredible and sometimes impossibly-complex young women. And while neither their mother nor myself were ever really inclined towards helicopter parenting, we were (because of the inundation of information we were consuming from the web) alert to the risks they faced.  I think having gone through the early years of raising our first daughter without the near-constant barrage of stories about child abuse, abductions, rape and molestation that today’s parents have via the Internet, social media and the endless cable network news cycle, we had the ability to squelch the frenetics with the realization that knowledge of the statistics about sexual assault does not actually increase the likelihood of becoming a victim – in fact, I believe that this realization can actually serve to diminish those chances while simultaneously lowering the parental panic threshold.

My kids weren’t exactly “Free Range” kids – they were tethered, albeit loosely and gregariously, and to varying extents, marginally monitored; but the latitude and freedom they were given lay somewhere between “have fun storming the castle” and “be home when the street lights come on”. I think they each got a phone at the age of 13, and we expected to know where they were and who they were with.  We let them go out with friends whose parents we’d never met.  We let them walk along (and even cross) busy streets, or ride their bikes through our suburban Kansas City neighborhood without rape whistles or bike helmets. When they were old enough to date (in our house, that age was 16), they were required to double date, and we had to meet the boys.

Important parenting note: it is probably necessary to explain what a “double date” means ahead of time.  My oldest daughter decided that the spirit of the law had been adequately met when she accepted the invitation of two boys for her Junior Prom, and brought them both to the house for us to meet.  The traditional prom-date pictures in front of the fireplace mantle were notably non-traditional that year.

I should note that we effectively had two sets of three kids. Our oldest, a boy, was born in 1989, followed by a daughter in 1991 and a son in 1993. Then there was a lengthy break, followed by a daughter in 1998, then a daughter in 2000 and a son in 2003. What this obviously means is that we have three children who made it to adulthood (very much intact and exceptionally well rounded, if I might indulge my own parental pride for a moment). Collaterally, this also means that the first three were kind of our practice run for the last three. Until they were old enough to drive, we took them where they wanted to go, and made sure they knew they were expected to stay there (something we still do with the younger batch). They knew then, as they do now, the requirement to call or text if their prescribed plans were changing (a rule seldom broken).

Even now that we are no longer together as their parents, and custody agreements determine how our time is split amongst the three non-adult children, our parenting consists of talking to them, teaching them and trusting them. Amazingly, despite the fact that we live in separate households, we seldom (if ever) have actual parenting conflicts.

I don’t lie awake at night worrying that terrible things are going to happen to them, but I am aware that my daughters are much more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted by a man than their three brothers.  I have tried to be the kind of father whose example leads them in the direction of eventually finding a partner in life who would never raise a hand to them, or harm them deliberately in any way. But other than being the best example I can be (as a flawed human being and imperfect father), and letting them know that as long as I draw breath, I am a resource for them if they ever need to escape a harmful relationship, there is not really much else I can do for them that promotes the kind of healthy, independence-building forays into the minefield of good and bad decision making that will define their transition from children to adults. The key I think, is learning how to keep them close while still parenting from a safe distance.


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