Teach your children this: Fight, flee and tell, but don’t freeze before a wolf

“Of all the teaming perils of the night in the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres that grill babies on grid-irons, witches that fatten their captives in cages for cannibal cages, the wolf is worst, for he cannot listen to reason. You are always in danger in the forest, where no people are.”

Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves (The Bloody Chamber, 1979)

The world is full of wonderful people, but within the ranks of men there are some nasty, clever predators who take advantage of the most vulnerable, children among them. They are very hard to spot, but the evidence of their activity is sadly all too clear to see, including in the testimony of our late friend Nigel Thompson, for whom the pain was ultimately too much.

No sensible parent has failed to fear a chill of dread when listening to a child sex abuse enquiry, or failed to wonder how we can protect our children from experiences that could traumatise them for the rest of their lives.

I believe that we can do this, and the mechanism is to teach our children about the natural human responses to great danger: fight, flight and freeze, and to tell them that, whilst freezing might work well for a camouflaged lizard on a leaf, freezing is to be avoided at all costs in the face of a predatory wolf. ‘Do not be a rabbit in the headlights,’ we must tell them. ‘Fight or flee, then tell’.

I know the power of this from my own experience. On a (happily small) number of occasions in my life I have been at the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention, and, armed with a robust self-esteem and a healthy dollop of common sense, have defended myself very effectively each time.

On the first occasion I can remember, I was walking down a quiet, affluent suburban street in West London in around 1978, aged about nine, with a younger neighbour who was seven. We were approached by a tall, skinny, strange man with long red hair — I can still remember him to this day — and, as he drew near, he exposed himself and began asking us obscene questions. My young friend clutched my hand and, quite literally, froze to the spot. I, on the other hand, thought fast, grabbed her, yelled at her to move, and fled — dragging her behind me. We got away. The memory has stayed with me, but we never saw him again. My only regret is that we didn’t take it to the police, as other girls (or boys) might not have been as prepossessed as I was. But flight worked.

Some 15 years later, I was a young NHS manager working at Ashford Hospital in Middlesex. It was a rambling construction put up during the war, consisting of low lying ‘temporary’ wards (still functioning in 1994) linked by long, draughty, largely empty corridors. My office as General Manager for Surgery lay at the end of one of these corridors, with three outside walls. The owner of a local printing firm, a man in his 50s with a long relationship with the hospital, had arranged a meeting with me to talk about the hospital’s stocks of patient leaflets. He arrived in my office at the appointed time. But to my enormous surprise, events almost immediately took an unexpected and dark turn as he smoothly drew the floral curtains across the window and I found myself pressed up against the wall in the corner of my office. (Quite how he thought this was going to play out to his advantage still escapes me. I’m not a wallflower now and I certainly wasn’t then). Once again, I found myself assessing my options in a microsecond. Freezing certainly wouldn’t have gone well for me. Instead, I opted for fight followed by flight — flying breathlessly to the office of the Chief Executive many corridors away, banging on his door, marching in and telling him exactly what had happened. He was understanding, symptathetic, and furious. End result: printer escorted from hospital premises, never to return. Again, no police, but we were still in the twentieth century. I know from my time as a magistrate that things are improving now.

So, my instinctive approach was not to hang around, rooted to the spot, to suffer the inevitable consequences and perhaps one day to be able to say ‘Me too’. Instead, I was able to fight, flee, tell and say simply ‘Me, now’. Then and there. Problem sorted.

But of course many children can’t, and don’t, say ‘Me’, even in 2018. Why not? Perhaps because they lack the sense of self-worth and the basic knowledge and skills to do so. Sometimes because they are in positions of isolation and powerlessness where to do so would put them at greater risk than keeping quiet. Unfortunately, the clever and nasty wolves know exactly how to find and single out those children. Our job as parents is to ensure that the children we love and care for are not amongst them.

For a soundtrack to this story, listen to the unsurpassed Tim Minchin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtHOmforqxk