Yesterday morning, as we waited for the middle school bus giggling at our silly puppy, who was alternately barking at birds and chewing sticks, a police cruiser pulled in our driveway to ask us if we’d seen the 12-year-old girl down the street. “She’s gone missing,” the officer said a little loudly so we could hear him over Ruby’s barking.
The little girl down the street. Two years older than my own little girl. Gone missing. From our quiet little rural street.
I didn’t even know her name. Lily did. She knew quite a bit about her. But we barely got to speak about it before the bus came and took my little girl to school. The bus driver stopped a few houses down, but that little girl didn’t get on the bus.
Earlier that morning, my friend posted a scary article about an app—Musical.ly—that lots of kids use and evidently, as happens now, sexual predators use to target little girls. Like mine. And her friends. My friends’ little girls. And maybe the one down the street.
I'm loathe to admit: I don’t police my daughter’s phone as much as I should; every few weeks or so I look through her texts and Instagram messages. Often I find stuff that makes me uncomfortable. Talking to or about boys. Messaging people—kids—I don’t know. Girl drama.
We have a big talk about it. I tell her that if it’s not something she would feel comfortable with me reading than it’s not something she should be typing. She says she knows and won’t do it again. And then she does.
Yesterday changed that.
When I was about her age, I developed a crush on one of my older brother’s friends. I used to write him love notes. Years later, my brother told me they would read them and laugh when they were drunk. That seems so tame compared to what kids do today. But even as a grown woman, thinking about that makes me kind of sick with shame and embarrassment. Side note: I am adult friends with that person, and he’s a great guy, husband, and father. Still, I wish that someone would have sat down with me and had a conversation like I had with Lily yesterday.
It went kind of like this:
Honey, I took your phone, and you aren’t getting it back for a while. I’m not mad at you and you aren’t in trouble, but I don’t think that you are mature or responsible enough to have a phone and access to all the apps you do.
She nodded a little and asked, “Why?”
Lots of reasons. For one: It’s too easy to fire off a text or comment in the heat of the moment that could hurt a friend deeply. God knows, I’ve done that myself, and I’m much older and should know better. It’s just too easy to type words that you can’t take back.I see how group messages can too often result in miscommunication and hurt feelings and other divisive situations. I love you and your friends too much to let that happen.
Head nodding, eyes down.
You are too young to be talking with boys. That’s it. I understand that other kids do it. I understand that you are intrigued with love and the idea of it. I remember feeling just like that. Most every little girl your age does. You will have plenty of time for grown up things like love and relationships, but right now you’re just not mature enough to have any kind of relationship other than friendships with boys.
I was driving so I didn’t see her reaction to this. I asked if she understood and she said yes.
I know that these apps are lots of fun, unfortunately, there are very bad people who use them to target children ... little girls just like you.*
Even though we have discussed lots of times how you should never talk to someone you don’t know or respond to messages, I’m not 100% confident that you would make the right decision in that situation. Making the wrong decision could cost you your life, and the only way I can protect you from that is to remove these potential threats.
It may seem mean or harsh. You might feel like you’re the only kid who doesn’t have a phone or Instagram or snapchat or whatever, and I’m sorry. I am not punishing you or trying to make you feel left out, but I love you too much to risk anything happening to you. I love you more than you can even imagine loving anyone or anything. I know that you don't think I'm cool or smart, but you can talk to me about anything. I mean a-n-y-thing. Ask Sissy.She understood. She wasn’t mad. She didn’t cry or complain or say she hated me or I was a bad mom—all of which I was prepared for. I told her that when we were together I would put my phone down too and just be with her.
I didn’t yell or criticize or condemn. I didn’t raise my voice. I tried to be the mom that I think I would have wanted when I was 10 and struggling to make sense of the world and my place in it.
And it was so. fucking. hard. It was emotionally draining and my head was spinning and my heart ached but my gut felt just right. At least for a few minutes.
My friends have given me valuable advice about this situation, and I’m grateful for a tribe of bad ass women, their wisdom and willingness to share it. We’ve got to stick together, mamas. Build each other and our kids up.
The little girl down the street was found and returned home safely. Thank God.
*We had a very frank discussion about the fact that bad people exist who buy little girls and that other bad people exist who sell them and the horrific things that can happen.