There is a girl in Toronto who needs a lot of patience and understanding.
This 11-year-old child made a mistake that grew and grew until it became an international story. She told her family, her school and the police that a stranger had followed her and attacked her with scissors, slashing her hijab. Twice. The child's brother reported that he had been witness to it all. The girl described her attacker and the event in some detail. The man was Asian, he was smiling, he was dressed in black, the scissors had a blue handle.
After the police went to the media with the story, a press conference was held in the child's school, and she was interviewed by numerous media outlets. Political leaders from three levels of government responded with shock and horror. Even CNN picked up the story. Many people said, "This is not Canada."
Then the police investigated further, only to find that the story was untrue. It had not happened.
Actually, something DID happen. A girl, for reasons we will never know, felt the need to create a story that quickly got away from her. Did she call a press conference? That seems unlikely. Did she ask the police to release the report to the media? Also rather unlikely.
As a human rights educator, a mother and grandmother, I have had quite a few 11-year-old girls in my life. They can be bossy, rude, mean, angry, independent, easily influenced, sweet, kind, vulnerable, confused, frightened and deeply in need of attention, all at the same time.
I believe we owe her an apology for not remembering that, even though she is well-spoken, she is still a child.
There is a reason that our society does not permit children of this age to vote or to sign contracts. They are not fully formed adults. They are on the way to being critical thinking individuals, but they have not yet arrived there. They can make independent choices, and also big mistakes. The Youth Criminal Justice Act treats people under the age of 18 differently from adults. Our laws recognize children as being less culpable than their seniors and expect those who are in trouble with the law to reform and mature as they age.
Rather than call for an apology (what good would that do?) from the girl and her family, I believe we owe her an apology for not remembering that, even though she is well-spoken, she is still a child. She even told us, although it was while describing her fear at the fictitious attack: "I am a kid." Exactly.
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When did we assign this level of attention to a child's stories? When race and religion are involved, we seem to lose all perspective. Because the story appeared to be one where hatred was a motivating factor, where a child was attacked for wearing a religious head covering, we felt a kind of national outrage. Did the child know that she was hitting Canada's sensitive button? We don't know.
We know that, several times a year, a child reports that a scary adult has followed them to school (on a day they may have arrived late), or that that someone tried to drag them into a car, or that a bad man tried to hurt them. While sometimes the stories are true, they are frequently followed by a much less publicized retraction. They often did not happen.
Don't be surprised when a scared child is interrogated and comes up with her own personal bogeyman.
I repeat that I know nothing about the child in Toronto or her reasons, but I do know something about the teaching of "stranger danger." What could be easier than instilling in children a fear of "the other?" Even though we know that children are most at risk of harm from their own family members and friends, we continue to scare them with the bogeyman.
So don't be surprised when a scared child is interrogated and comes up with her own personal bogeyman. As for the rest of us? Let's just get a grip!
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