April being child abuse prevention month we’re taking the time to share stories and encouragement to help parents prevent child abuse around them. This is a story that my friend was willing to share as an encouragement to parents who see something happening that shouldn’t and need to step in.
We were driving home after a late dinner celebrating our out-of-town friends’ visit. My mom drove the other car with my siblings and the other kids. In my dad’s convertible, the other mom sat in front and the other dad sat in the back seat with me. I’m the oldest, so I got to ride in the convertible with the grown-ups instead of in the other car with all the kids. I was in middle school, I think, and wasn’t allowed to ride in the front seat. The other dad was being nice letting his wife sit in the front seat so her hair wouldn’t get messed up by the wind with the car’s top down. They were friends from my dad’s job from when we had lived over seas a few years before.
My dad and the other dad were talking. I sat enjoying the warm summer air and the darkness showing off the stars between tree limbs as we drove home. I’m not sure what the other mom was doing. In fact, I don’t really even remember her being there except for the other dad being nice and letting her sit in the front seat for the sake of her hair. I remember that because shortly after noticing the stars I noticed the other dad playing with my hair.
The other dad didn’t ever “do anything” to me. Our bodies were never touching, his arm was never on my shoulders, he never put his hand on my lap. But his arm was across the back of the convertible so his hand could play with my hair and caress my ear and neck.
After a few seconds I saw my dad looking at me in the rear view mirror. We made eye contact while he drove. He asked, “Sarah, are you ok?” I think we were at a stop sign. I sat very still and timidly answered, “yes.” But… something was not ok. Then again, the other dad wasn’t touching me in private areas; wasn’t doing any of the things I had been taught to prevent people from doing, so what exactly was wrong? And if I said “no” then what would I say was not ok? Looking in that rear view mirror, I saw the look on my dad’s face confirming something was wrong and he knew it even though he was calm.
My dad watched me the entire drive home. I’m not sure how we didn’t get in a wreck because it was dark, the roads were curvy, and he watched me in the rear view mirror the whole time while keeping the other dad engaged in some sort of conversation. I sat completely still and watched him in the mirror while the other dad stroked my ear and twirled my hair.
When we got home I was told to go upstairs and wait for my mom in my parents’ bedroom. I don’t know what the conversation downstairs looked like, but I do know that my brother, sister, and I slept in sleeping bags on my parents’ floor that night and our guests were gone when we got up in the morning. It was the first night of what was supposed to be a several-night visit with overseas friends we hadn’t seen in several years, so it was surprising when we didn’t see them the next day.
I had a conversation that night with at least one of my parents, maybe both, that I don’t remember. What I do remember is replacing that hair-raising, intuitive-wrong-feeling with safety. I had been seen. I had been protected, along with my siblings. And I had been taught to trust that internal ‘red flag’ that abuse victims are trained out of.
I think I need to call my dad and thank him.
He didn’t try to explain away his friend’s behavior. He didn’t make a scene with the other dad and risk embarrassing me or unknowingly make me feel responsible for the other dad’s behavior. He didn’t worry about what his friend would think of him or whether that friendship or work relationship would suffer. He protected his children.
I won’t always see what threatens my children but I have first-hand experience telling me that any intervention I can make, even if it seems small at the time, can mean the difference between abuse and protection. My experience has taught me to trust that intuitive “wrong” feeling and as Batman* said “if there’s a 1% chance, treat it like a 100% chance.” I don’t know what the other dad would have done if I’d been sleeping in my own room that night. I do know, though, that my dad protected me and, possibly unknowingly, affirmed my ability to discern when I’m being threatened.
If there had been a next time, I think middle-school-me would have answered “no,” and asked my dad to pull over so I could ride in the front seat.
This was a sobering story to read, and serves as a reminder that we always have to protect our kids first. I know that there will be some that say this dad overreacted. While still others might feel that he didn’t act quickly enough. The point here is not to analyze what he should or should not have done but rather bring light to the fact that our first job is always to protect, affirm and advocate for our children. Even if it means harming our friendships. Even if it creates awkward and difficult situations. Even if we’re on the fence about red flags we are seeing. A child’s safety is not worth risking, and teaching children that they are in charge of their boundaries and we will always defend them is so crucial in the fight agains child abuse.
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