Last week, a group of my daughter's friends were mugged. At gunpoint.
When my daughter told me what happened, my heart froze. A group of teenagers were walking from a party at one friend's house to another friend's house in a very residential neighborhood. Thankfully (and that's not a big enough word for my gratitude), the perpetrators only took the kids' phones and nobody was hurt. But still, a friend of my daughter's had a gun in his chest.
I was ready to pack up, leave LA and move to a quiet neighborhood in Montana.
But would that even make a difference?
Crime is everywhere. I have no idea if it was always everywhere, but I know for sure it is now. At movie theaters in Denver and elementary schools in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Violence has become a part of our daily existence no matter where you live.
A couple of weeks after the tragedy in Denver, I remember a couple of friends and I took our kids to a movie. We sat down in our seats and scanned for "weird" people. We checked for the exits. We looked around the floor, under seats, to see if we could fit in case of gunfire. Then we told the kids "If you see anyone you don't like or who you think looks or is acting weird -- ANYBODY AT ALL -- just leave. Quietly. Go out into the lobby and we'll follow you out. Don't even ask us. Just go." Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I couldn't believe that the danger I was discussing was even a real possibility. But to me, it was.
I know the odds are with me when I open the door and let my kids out into the world, but I also know on some level that it's still a gamble. And it makes me sick. And scared. I can't help but constantly wonder, "what kind of world have we brought these kids into?"
As parents, all we want is a safe haven for our family and we try to find it. But whether it's in a quiet suburb or a big city, all of these places have one thing in common: They're in America. And Americans have guns. And Americans can get guns. And Americans will use guns. And for every person that points a gun, there's somebody else at the other end of it. And I hope it's not my kid. And you know what? I hope it's not your kid, either.
So what can we do?
I lived in NYC for almost 20 years and I know what it means to be street smart. I can tell you, most teenagers are not street smart.
We've done such a good job protecting them that they just aren't prepared for any possibility. I don't want to scare my kids, but I do want them to be prepared. It's the only way to help them stay safe.
Of course, the unfortunate truth is that nobody's ever completely safe, but there's no reason to look like an easy target. Life is a series of "What ifs" and each and every one of them is a real possibility (something I just learned the hard way.)
So, with the help of Sergeant Haefs of the Beverly Hills Police Department, I put together some tips you should share with your teens ASAP -- or at least before they walk out that door to that party:
1. Watch out for strangers: Duh! You've been taught this since birth. So why have you suddenly forgotten this golden rule we've practically beaten into you?! Because you're taller now? Look up the street, look behind you down the street. If you think you're being followed, keep walking in the direction of your destination and cross the street. Find a service station and wait until they pass. I say "safety comes before being polite to strangers." (Of course, you shouldn't be disrespectful or rude either -- it can start a fight -- but don't worry about being helpful. There's no reason to engage any strangers who talks to a kid. Even if it's just to ask for directions. YOU THINK SOMEBODY IS FOLLOWING YOU IN A CAR? Take a picture of the license plate and run to a well-lit, busy place ASAP.
2. Be smart: Please organize yourself and all of your stuff before get out of your car or walk down a street. Make sure you have EVERYTHING you need and have your keys where you can reach them (so you don't stand around looking for your Chapstick in the middle of a dark sidewalk, thank you very much!) Also, have your keys out and ready to use before you even get to your front door and check your surroundings to make sure nobody is near your door. Once you're in, close and lock the door behind you immediately.
3. Hide your stuff: Keep your phone, money, credit cards, jewelry -- anything of value -- out of sight.
4. Don't get distracted: If you're wearing headphones, keep the volume WAY down so you can hear everything going on around you. Better yet, go without music for a few minutes and put the headphones away. Is that so hard?
5. Take well-lit streets: Don't go down a dark street even if it's a route you know. Just because you walk it all the time doesn't mean it's safe at night. Take a busier, well-lit street and walk with friends. But EVEN if you ARE walking with friends, check out #6!
6. There isn't always safety in numbers: You think you're safe because you're with a group. But when a mugger sees a bunch of teens laughing, texting and oblivious to the world around them (and believe me, you ARE oblivious while you're filming that Snapchat of your friends), you're not safe -- you're fish in a bucket. Especially when the mugger has a gun. You're DESPERATE to send a text message? Be the ONLY one texting and make sure all of your friends are acting as a look-out.
7. Be aware of your surroundings: Avoid tall bushes, hedges, alleyways, empty lots, anywhere that's remote or where somebody could hide. Look around to make sure nobody is lurking in a bush or nook before using your key and providing an entry into your own home. If you think you're being followed CALL 911 and quickly run to a well-lit neighbor's house, service station, restaurant or shop.
8. Go from Point A to Point B: Stop leaving parties to go walk around the neighborhood. When you decide to leave a party (where we've just dropped you off), we don't know where you are. We can't come quickly to your aid. Please don't leave a party without letting us know you're leaving and exactly where you're going. And if you DO need to leave, go straight from where you are to where you are going -- quickly! Walking around aimlessly makes you a target.
And WORST-CASE SCENARIO:
9. Give the mugger what they ask for (as long as it's ONLY property): If they ask you to get into a car or go anywhere else, RUN! "Create distance," says Sergeant Haef. Yell "HELP! POLICE!" or "FIRE" -- just get away. But if someone is pointing a gun at you and asking for your phone, your money or your jewelry, just GIVE IT TO THEM. Nothing is more valuable than your life.
This may seem like a lot, but here's the most important thing to remember -- just teach your children to "think safe." Adults are exposed to the dangers of the world all the time but the truth is our kids live a more insulated existence. The Women's and Children's Health Network suggests reminding them that not everyone is always as nice as they seem. We live in a dangerous world and the best way to be safe is to think about staying safe!
For more tips on keeping your kid safe, read the full blog post at SarahMaizes.com.