My heart is racing as he kisses my cheek. “Bye, Mom,” he says. Then he grabs his backpack and walks away. I want to snatch him back. I’ll settle for puking instead.
It’s the summer of 2015, and my baby is going off to camp. It’s 3,000 miles away. It’s his first time flying on a plane by himself. When he gets to the other side, a stranger will pick him up and drive him to the Poconos. To a cabin I’ve never seen. To sleep in some foreign, far-off bed.
Although he’s only 9, my boy fears none of this. On the contrary, he’s excited about the adventure. My son is unusually independent, which doesn’t surprise me.
I raised him to be like that.
It hasn’t been easy taking this approach to parenting. When I was 8, a sadistic pedophile decided to make me his victim. He terrorized me for the next six years and left me a nervous wreck for the rest of my life.
He was a teacher who molested dozens of his students over the course of two decades. Like the teachers at Choate Rosemary Hall who, we found out this week, sexually abused students for years without consequence, he was very skilled at choosing his prey. He wanted kids who were lacking in self-confidence, because kids like that don’t know they can say no. They’re also too afraid to tell anyone that they’re being molested.
Pedophiles are very good at conning parents. My abuser convinced my mother — and many other mothers — that he was a nice, trustworthy guy. Believing this, my broke, single mom eagerly accepted his offer to provide free child care. She thought it was safer to have me stay with him than for me to walk home from school alone.
Now that I have a kid, I’ve noticed that most parents think like this. They believe children are safe only when they are in the care of adults, in part because kids have to be protected from would-be pedophiles and abductors. But as a psychologist with an expertise in child abuse, I can tell you this theory is hogwash. It’s exceedingly rare for a child to be taken by a stranger, and in around 90 percent of sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the kid already knows.
Most often, that someone is either a family member or an acquaintance, such as a coach, counselor, priest or teacher. So ironically, when we put our kids into educational programs and organized sports to keep them safe, we may actually be putting them in more danger than if they were just playing outside with their friends.
What’s more, research on children’s play suggests that when we don’t allow our children to engage in so-called risky situations when they must face challenges and make decisions on their own, we rob them of the opportunity to develop self-confidence and risk management skills. In other words, we turn them into easy targets for the predators we are trying to protect them from.
That’s why I always encouraged my son to do things on his own. When he was 3 months old, I let him cry it out, so he could learn to fall asleep without my help. When he was 7, I started letting him stay home alone for increasing amounts of time. And at 9, when he expressed a desire to walk around town on his own, I let him.
None of this was easy for me. Like every parent, I am petrified by the thought of anything happening to my child. The abuse I suffered probably makes me more anxious than most. I know firsthand just how vicious predators can be.
But I also know that the best way I can protect my son from bad people is to let him practice using his own wits to survive. He can do that only if I’m not hovering.
In sending my son off to summer camp, I knew that I was potentially putting him in harm’s way. The job of camp counselor is bound to attract pedophiles. All jobs that put adults in contact with kids do. But because my son had practice in assessing risk and developing self-confidence, I hoped he was more likely to recognize a dangerous situation and get himself out of it. These are survival skills I didn’t have at his age.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Confident and independent kids can get hurt, too. I’m still afraid.
But I decided long ago that my need to quell my anxiety would never trump his need to grow into a self-sufficient adult. So as much as I wanted to snatch my son back before he boarded the plane, I chose to make the same hard decision I’d made every day since he was a baby. I chose to be brave.
And I prayed that the summer would go by fast.
Michelle Stevens is a psychologist and the author of the memoir Scared Selfless: My Journey From Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving.