Sinead Moriarty: The conversation no parents want to have with their six-year-old child
Published 04/10/2012 | 17:00
IT is every parent's nightmare -- the white van that pulls up outside your house and takes your child away. We all wake up from this dream in a cold sweat. But for April Jones's parents, the nightmare is a reality. Their five- year-old girl was taken from outside their door by a man in a van.
In 2002 Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City as her parents slept in the next room. Suddenly the nightmare grew worse. Your child could even be taken from inside your house.
It seems that nowhere is safe any more, not even your own home. The world seems so much more daunting than before.
Everyone keeps saying: "What happened? It wasn't like this when we were young." Wasn't it? Were we just unaware of it? Or were we shielded from it, because back then we didn't have hundreds of media outlets bombarding us 24/7?
Yesterday, my six-year-old son heard about April Jones on the radio. He frowned. "What do they mean, a girl is missing?" he asked, his eyes wide.
And so began 'the discussion'. How do you explain to small children that they must never, ever, go with a stranger?
How do you explain that there are bad people out there who might one day come along and steal them from their slumber or pull them into a van right outside their house?
Whatever you say will induce nightmares or the hundred-question interrogation.
In my case it was the interrogation -- thus far -- although nightmares could well follow.
Me: You must never get into a car with a stranger. It could be a bad guy
Son: What does a bad guy look like? Does he have wolf teeth?
Me: He might look a bit strange or he might look normal, like Dad, or your uncle.
Son: Why would he want me to go in his car?
Me: Because sometimes bad guys want to take children away from their families.
Me (trying to think of an answer that won't frighten the life out of him and make him agoraphobic): To a kind of cave or something
Son: With bears?
Me (needing to get back on point): No. Look, just remember that you must never go with anyone you don't know. If someone stops their car and offers you sweets or chocolate never take it.
Son (suddenly looking interested): What kind of sweets?
Me: Any kind.
Son: What if it's a Twix?
Me: It doesn't matter what it is, just say no.
Son: What if it's a Curly Wurly? (his all-time favourite treat)
Me (getting frustrated): It doesn't matter what he offers you! Just say no and do not get into the car or van or whatever he's driving.
Son (shrugging): Fine, there's no need to be so grumpy about it.
Did I do the right thing? Should we warn our children? I think we have to. Forewarned is forearmed.
But it's a sad day when you have to tell a small child that there are evil people in the world; that there are people out there who want to harm children; people who thrive on it.
And does a child really have any hope of escaping a grown man dragging them into his van?
When you hear news like April's disappearance, you hope. You pray they'll find her. Perhaps it was a mistake, a simple misunderstanding. But cases like this rarely are. They tend to have bad outcomes.
And yet, every once in a while, there is a happy ending. Elizabeth Smart was found nine months after her abduction and was reunited with her family.