That Doesn’t Look Like a Bad Guy!

One of the things I love about my mom is that she always answers honestly any question that’s asked of her. Once when I was about eight, I asked her if we were poor. She just looked me in the eye and said yes. (But no, we wouldn’t have to sell our house and live in a shack.) When I was ten and I asked her what “getting your period” meant after reading the phrase in a book, she explained the female reproductive system to me. And as a grandmother, she gives my boys the same honest answers to their questions as she used to give me.

Now I have nothing against big cities, but living in a town of less than 2000 people means that my children have freedoms that other children can only dream about. My boys can play outside in an unfenced yard without constant adult supervision. My oldest son can make the five-minute walk to the library or the candy store by himself. And when I need to run out to do a few errands, Zackary sometimes remains at home with instructions to keep the door locked and not answer the phone.

scary character
Creative Commons via Roger Price

But even in small-town Saskatchewan, there are sometimes dangers. And recently, when a very high-risk sexual offender cut off his monitoring bracelet in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, a town just over three hours away, and was spotted around schools at small towns nearby, the security I love about my small town was no longer assured. And I wasn’t even at home when it happened.

In fact, I was having the time of my life at a conference in Toronto with no idea that my small town wasn’t the safe haven that it normally was. Fortunately, my mom was looking after my boys and she was well informed of the danger. So when she needed to run some errands and Zackary decided that he wanted to stay home, she wasn’t comfortable allowing that. He wanted to know why and, as always, my mom was willing to answer the question honestly. But the conversation that ensued was one that I never would have expected.

Zackary listened to my mom explain that there was a bad guy that had escaped from the police and might be somewhere nearby and while he understood and accepted that, he told his “Nan” that he wasn’t worried about bad guys because he would just run away if he saw one. She asked him how he would know if a person nearby was a bad guy and he said that he would be able to tell because of how the bad guy looked.

prater monster vienna
Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Now here’s the interesting part. He wasn’t referring to a mean expression on a person’s face. He was referring to the characteristics of the “bad guys” in the video games he loves so much. He genuinely thought that a bad guy would be easy to spot because there would be identifying features such as purple skin, horns or clawed hands. As my mom realized this, she found a picture of the escaped criminal on her tablet and showed it to my son. Zackary exclaimed in surprise, “But that just looks like a man!”

My mom told me about the conversation when I returned home a few days later. I have often thought about the ramifications of video games in my son’s life and I did consider before that they may be giving him a feeling of invincibility simply because in a video game, you can keep trying and trying until you defeat the “boss.” At seven years old, Zackary isn’t playing violent or hyper-realistic video games so I wasn’t worried about his becoming desensitized to violence. I did consider that he might overestimate his abilities by thinking his success in a game equalled his success in life.

I never considered, though, that he might think the characters in the game were anything like the people he might encounter in real life. It sounds a little silly to even say it; surely he knows that he’s not going to stumble across a blue talking hedgehog or a grumpy green dragon in real life. But in our sheltered small town, we don’t encounter “bad guys” very often and since he had never seen one, it never even occurred to him that a bad guy is just a man, a person like any other person he might meet.

bad guy with claws
One of Zackary’s drawing of a bad guy, with multiple hook arms.

Fortunately, the escape of the criminal led to a dialogue being started with my son that has helped to clarify his misconceptions. Because this was a misconception that I hadn’t even known existed and even in a safe small town such as ours, it was a dangerous one. It also reminded me how important it is to take a little time each day to discuss everyday issues with my boys, because their questions and responses are often enlightening and unexpected. I remember Zackary talking to me after learning about “stranger danger” at school, but even with that education, the message didn’t really hit home because of the way he was viewing a dangerous person in his mind.

It’s a little thing, to spend a half-hour or so each day to talk to a child, but it has a big impact at times, and the conversation between my mother and my son was one of those times. I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky that my mom is the type of person to always answer questions and take the time to discuss those answers with her children and grandchildren. Partially because she helped teach my son something very important, but even more so because she passed that same characteristic on to me. And sometimes, we may not even know how much of an impact our answer to a question may have on a child.

12 thoughts on “That Doesn’t Look Like a Bad Guy!”

  1. Just how DO you recognise a “bad guy”, or someone “acting suspiciously”.

    A friend and I did once find a “suspicious package”, a bag left unattended – never did find out if it was harmless

    1. That’s exactly the challenge, Matthew. There’s no way of knowing who might be a bad guy, so as a parent, I just have to try to get my son to recognize that and practice basic common sense while at the same time not making him scared of everyone and everything. It sounds like you and your friend had the right idea as kids; hopefully I can get my son erring on the side of caution too!

  2. This was a very thought provoking and enlightening article. I have a one year old son and I can only imagine how much more scary it will be when he start school and is not under my watch 24/7.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah! It does get scary even though it’s amazing watching a child grow and learn so much. But there’s always that part of every parent that just wishes we could keep them small and safe and innocent forever I think…

  3. Great post Kathryn! My mom always tells the story of the time she gathered all the neighborhood kids to talk about “stranger danger”. When she was done and thought she had done a great job, she asked in passing “What does a stranger look like?”. We all yelled out our 5 year old ideas “Wears a mask”, “Has a witches hat!”, “Wearing all black and a cape!”. So she started over. :) Great job your mom did!

  4. Wow! It’s pretty surprising how the minds of little ones work.. and their lack of fear sometimes. Very scary indeed! I guess no matter HOW safe you may feel, it is always important, like your mom, to be honest and open… Very scary! I hope they were able to catch the offender!

    1. That’s so true, Soozle! I take that small-town security for granted sometimes, but with the amount of travelling we do, instilling some basic safety rules in Zackary is a must! And what’s really scary is that the criminal escaped into the United States, and Canada decided not to extradite him, though they did tell authorities he’ll be arrested if he tries to come back to Canada. I’m glad he’s no longer roaming small towns but it’s scary that he’s now a free man in the U.S…

  5. I’ve been having troubles in the last 2-3 years with my son in the city when we lived there. He’s 9 years old and loves to talk to anyone and wouldnt mind getting into a strangers car and going somewhere. He’s has adhd and it makes it ten times harder to explain to him that not all people are good, to not talk to strangers or even get aboard strange cars. This year I am finally making some progress with him, due to him having medications finally. But I’m stil having alittle difficulties with him understanding.

    1. That is my seven-year-old exactly, Stephanie! I actually love his outgoing attitude and other people do too; he’s an incredibly charming child. But the thought of him acting that way when I’m not with him scares me a LOT. It’s hard to instill that common sense without making a child fearful of everything, and I don’t want to do that either. I guess all we can really do is keep talking about it and reinforcing the lessons until they stick!

  6. It’s interesting how their minds work isn’t it? My 7 year old feels invincible, and will say things like that too, he’ll just run away, or kick the bad guy or whatever. It’s hard, sounds like your mom handled it really well.

    1. It is hard, and on the one hand, I don’t want to completely destroy that innocence but on the other hand, man that kid scares me sometimes! At least we’re making progress now that he’s realized that bad guys just look like regular people, but I still think he believes he could lash out and escape if something happened. I suppose that’s just part of being young though; I remember thinking the same thing when I was a kid too!

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