I’ve been thinking about my child-protection advocate “origin story” lately. You know superhero origin stories, like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider to become Spider Man, or Superman escaping the dying planet Krypton to crash-land on his adopted home, Earth.
My co-author, Kidpower Founder Irene van der Zande, has a really simple “origin story” about why she started Kidpower. In a nutshell: one day more than 25 years ago, Irene was a guiding a group of children in Santa Cruz. This normal day turned scary when a disturbed man threatened to kidnap one of the kids, and Irene had to intervene to protect the children, and also get help from bystanders to get the man to leave them alone. The kids were fine, but Irene felt motivated to join with violence-prevention activists, martial artists, and others to develop Kidpower as a personal safety program for kids and people of all ages.
My origin story is harder to encapsulate. Growing up, I knew that my mother was not close to her parents and that she had consciously chosen to do everything the exact opposite of what they would have done. My grandparents were practically Victorian in their child-rearing outlook, while my mom embraced the humanistic approaches of Dr. Benjamin Spock and Parenting Effectiveness Training (P. E. T.). My mom felt that kids were very important and deserved respect and consideration for their opinions and feelings; a far cry from the authoritarian upbringing she had experienced. I was lucky to grow up in the 1970’s and 80’s, which felt worlds away from the 1950’s.
It was more than just the times changing, though. It was not until I was in my 30’s and a mother myself that I fully came to understand how destructive the behavior of the elder generations had been. This is where the story becomes difficult to tell, because while Kidpower teaches that “problems should not have to be secrets,” my family taught me to not talk about their business. This was part of the problem in the first place, that my grandparents’ generation covered over serious problems with a carefully-polished veneer of perfection. I had to learn about my family secrets one puzzle piece at a time, gathered over many years. When I was able to put it all together, the picture did not agree with the “Father Knows Best” image the family tried to project. The adverse childhood experiences that had accumulated were not easy to overcome, and I give a lot of credit to my parents for being able to do so.
Fortunately, I have internalized the principle Put Safety First above any value of secrecy, and whenever I have learned of a current danger to a child’s safety, I have always acted to make sure that their safety is protected, no matter how uncomfortable and challenging that situation was, or who would be upset.
“The safety and healthy self-esteem of a child are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.” –Kidpower’s Founding Principle
I have learned through my personal and professional experiences that every family and organization needs to be well-versed in protecting child safety. The idea that “the best” schools or families do not need to worry about safety is a harmful illusion. The hard truth is that it is never enough to screen people as they enter a community—whether it is a family, school, or other organization—and then give them a permanent pass as being “safe,” even for people whom we know well. Instead, we must do the work of keeping an eye on behavior to make sure that everybody, adults and children alike, follows the safety rules at all times, and that our communities know what to do in the cases where safety is threatened. Our Doing Right by Our Kids model of “Protecting Safety at All Levels” will show you how to do that in the groups that you are part of.