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.
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.