How do I explain to my 9-year-old that a sexual offender lives in the neighborhood?
Q. Recently I was informed by the local police that a sex offender had moved into our neighborhood about three blocks away from where we live. He was convicted five years ago of first-degree molestation of female 7- and 9-year-old victims. He was also convicted of exposing himself to those same victims and to other children.
My 9-year-old son walks home a short distance with his friends from school every day, and also rides his bike in the area. My wife and I want to know how we can let our son be aware of this person, without letting him know of the awful details about this man's crimes. How should we handle this?
A. If your son were under age 8, your only option would be to take on the full responsibility of keeping him safe from this man. No matter how parents warn children, it's been proved time after time that a predator given candy or kittens can lure children 7 years old and younger into danger.
What Grade-Schoolers Can Understand
Children between the ages of 8 and 10 begin to understand that a person who appears nice outwardly can have hurtful intentions. They realize the importance of being cautious of people they don't know. Even so, when children are over age 8 and travel the neighborhood without adult supervision, they should only do so in the company of two or more friends.
Although your son at 9 years old likely knows that there are people in the world who do bad things, it's difficult when he realizes one of those people lives in your neighborhood and that his bad acts were against children. Although you'd like to protect his childhood innocence, you'll probably need to shatter it -- but in as gentle a way as possible.
Explaining the Situation
That being said, your question remains: How can you best explain the situation to your son?
- Tell him that while most people in the community care about children and would help them out in any situation, a few people hurt children.
- Say that a man who was in prison lives nearby, and point this man out to your son, while telling him to stay away from that man.
Talking to Your Child Further
Now some children will accept this information and follow parents' directions for steering clear of the person in question. Other children won't let the issue rest. If this is the case with your child, you'll need to explain the situation further because if you don't, he'll find someone else to offer the information he's seeking. You want him to get his information from you.
Here's how a conversation might go:
Child: Why was he sent to prison? What did he do?
Parent: He hurt two children.
Child: What did he do to them?
Parent: He touched them inappropriately.
Child: Did he hit them?
Parent: No, he touched them close to where they go to the bathroom. That's not okay, it's a crime.
Child: Why did he do that?
Parent: There are just some things you won't understand until you're older and this is one of them. I don't completely understand it myself.
Even with this explanation and warning, you might need to see that an adult escorts your son and his friends home from school and you may need to keep him from roaming the neighborhood on his bicycle. While in days past a parent might equip the child with a whistle to blow if the man approached, today the answer might be a cell phone.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, March 2006.