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Kids' Sixth Sense

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: When I was 9, I saw a single wink pass between two men. The fact that I noticed and interpreted that wink may have prevented something horrific from happening to me. Our family was staying in a hotel, getting ready to head out for dinner. While my mother was still finishing her coiffure in the bathroom, my bored 7-year-old brother and I headed out to the hotel lobby to wait for our parents on the plush sofas. While there, a nice man struck up a conversation with us. He asked us about school, our parents, where we were from -- the usual stuff.

Sixth Sense

I remember there was another man in the lobby. He stood by the big revolving exit doors. The two men never spoke to or acted like they knew each other at all. Then the nice man asked my brother if we would like to go for a ride in a convertible, and I that's when I saw it: a lightning-fast wink that shot over my brother's head to the man by the door. The wink made the man by the door scoot out fast, presumably to bring the car around. And that's when I felt myself spring to my feet and grab my brother's hand. It didn't make sense that we should suddenly be rudely bolting down the hall away from the nice man who seemed so interesting, but my body was somehow in charge and making sense was no longer an issue. I had responded to a kid's sixth sense, and decades later, the memory still stirs up a chaotic blender of feelings in my stomach.

Almost all parents know that kids have a special, nonverbal way to take in information. This gift goes way back to our anthropological past, when the survival of infants and preverbal children depended on their learning to read people and quickly determine who was friend and who was predator. Children are especially astute at detecting and even mirroring their parents' moods, and older children have an uncanny ability to translate for preverbal younger siblings. But so often, adults dismiss kids' sensitivity to danger and prefer to defer to social conventions.

Case in point: Recently I spoke with a distressed friend who was angry as heck at her daughter's school administration. Last year, her 9-year-old daughter had returned from the summer camp run by her private school with the news that one of the male counselors (a middle school teacher) seemed "creepy." This disturbed the mother enough that she marched her daughter into the principal's office to tell her story. Since the girl could provide little more evidence than her own "gut feeling," however, the mom and her daughter were dismissed and the teacher was not investigated. One year later, the teacher in question was arrested for molesting two children. This could have been prevented if adults had respected a child's intuition.

A new study has found that after only a single interaction, children can determine which adults to trust for truthful information. The study, staged by Queen's University in Canada, tested adults, 7-year-olds and 4-years-olds by asking a question and then having two people on a computer screen give a right and wrong answer. Later, a second question was asked, and the participants were told they could seek the help of only one person for the answer. Results showed that adults and 7-year-olds always chose to ask the person who had previously given the right answer. The 4-year-olds weren't as accurate; they probably need more than a single encounter to impact the way they seek information from people. But the real news here is that 7-year-olds aren't easily duped, and their snap judgements are often accurate.

The problem is that we teach children to be respectful of all adults and to replace their sixth sense with logic, e.g., "He is a teacher. He must be respected and trusted." In his book "Protecting the Gift," security specialist Gavin de Becker asks parents to give their children a "Test of Twelve" to determine if they are old enough to be left alone. The test is available on his website and includes such questions as:

1) Does your child know how to honor his feelings? If someone makes him uncomfortable, that's an important signal.
2) Are you as the parent strong enough to hear about any experience your child has had, no matter how unpleasant?
3) Does your child know it's OK to rebuff and defy adults?

I think it's important to teach children to preserve their survival instincts and that feeling unsafe should override good manners. It's easier to apologize to an innocent adult later than to see your kid's face on a milk carton. I also think that we adults need to trust our children. More often than not, they are telling the truth -- not fabricating hurtful stories.

9 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kelly October 15, 2010, 7:21 AM

I have tried to hold on to that gut instinct and I have to say it has served me well over the years. I now take special care in listening to my own kids, especially when they can’t explain or articulate a feeling well.

Amber October 15, 2010, 10:09 AM

I still hold on to that instinct, and I use it. When my frined started dating a new guy she had me meet him and give her my opion. Something just didn’t feel right about him, and I knew I did not want this guy around my kid. When I told her that she said her brother-in-law felt the same way, and she ended up dumping him.

Christi October 15, 2010, 6:35 PM

I remember well how a stranger approached a friend and myself at the elementary school playground while a soccer game was going on across the field. He insisted he was a friend of my father’s from work, and that my dad had gotten into a car accident, was in the hospital and my mother had sent him to come and get me. He knew my name only after my friend told him what it was. I knew he was lying. I told him my dad was at home sick, that I knew his friends, that one of my older sisters would have come to get me, not a stranger. He tried, in vain, to get me to go with him and finally, after looking over his shoulder at the kids and parents at the soccer game, he left.
We left the park immediately (in a different direction than he did) and ran all the way home and told my parents what happened. Mom and Dad put us in the car, drove to the school and looked for the guy but we didn’t see him. Terrified, we hid in the car while they looked around. My parents went to my friend’s house, told her parents and the police were called. We were only 8 years old, but I remember very clearly that our what we told the police was the same, except for the color of his t-shirt. I thought it was yellow, she thought it was white. The police officer, at the time, dismissed it as kids telling tales and looking for attention, so did my friend’s parents. Thank goodness mine didn’t. I don’t know if anything ever happened after that with that guy, if he was caught, if he kidnapped any other little girl, or where he was from, etc, but I know what happened. Thank goodness I had the instinct to know he was bad, thank goodness that I didn’t go with him, thank goodness I knew I could tell him NO! And thank goodness that police, teachers and parents take these matters more seriously than they did then!

KS October 15, 2010, 10:19 PM

My husband and I had a lengthy discussion about just this the other day and how we can encourage our children to listen to their intuition.

One of the biggest things we see people do that make both of us cringe is forcing kids to have physical contact with people they are not comfortable with. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the biggest proponents to stranger danger are also the ones yelling at their children to give old uncle bob a hug.

“Why are you so shy around him normally your so friendly? It’s rude not to hug our family and friends.” This practice IMO is one of the precursors to children being abused by family. I strongly believe it sets them up for not establishing boundaries with authority figures and not feeling comfortable with saying no.

I also think that WE as parents need to take people to task when our kids are unable to fight for themselves.

One of the biggest self confidence boosts for one of our children was when we stood up for him after an incident occurred and he was unjustifiably labeled a liar. Him knowing that we were there for him did more in a few short hours to strengthen his ability to trust himself than anything we have done in his entire life combined.

E October 17, 2010, 4:25 PM

I have the opposite problem: children always get a positive gut feeling about me, but 50% of the parents substitute their own paranoid gut feelings and prevent their children from interacting with me. Dateline and catholic priests and youth pastor scandals etc. have gotten everybody wrenched up, and it’s just easier to demonize everyone than investigate the individual facts. But no matter how many parents I can have vouch for me, and no matter how many background checks I’ve been through, some people don’t want to eventually admit they were wrong (they don’t have to admit it to me, just themselves). But I just have to look on the bright side, that those 50% allow me to have more time to move on and meet and work with different kids and parents.

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