Using the story ‘Pretty Salma’ to teach kids about coercion and grooming
To deal with the overwhelm of working full time with the kids home, we’ve been sending the kids outside to bike around the block alone. We’ve also resorted to setting them up with their own email and icloud accounts so they can zoom with teachers and friends.
This means our kids are going to spend a lot more time without our direct supervision, and outside the supervision of people who have the minimal CORI background checks. While the Little Earthquakes are more informed than I was about the realistic risks of stranger danger at this age, this is a good time to brush up on how our kids can protect themselves against predators and manipulation when we’re not around
Quick Things You Need To Know:
- These are the cliffs notes from my infodump on how we use the story ‘Pretty Salma’ to prepare our kids against coercion and grooming tactics
- I’m just going to post it here as an unpolished article because I’m not sure where else to put it. So it will live here right now.
- We discussed this book and how to use scenes from the book to discuss coercion with our kids during our March Luminary livestream event. These notes are expansions on that.
- This collection on body boundaries and consent includes books to support and scaffold these conversations.
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Background on this story & Problematic aspects
- Not #OwnVoices: The author is a White South African man from Capetown, whose body of work centers African protagonists. He generally avoids common tropes about Africa in kidlit (Africans as victims, pathetic, etc.) but I also can’t know what I’m missing because I don’t have that experience as a US citizen. So be mindful that this is not an #OwnVoices story.
- Othering: The story takes place in what appears to be contemporary Ghana. Daly inserts two italicized Ghanian words into the book and makes references to Anansi.
- Equating disability & age with ignorance: As in most typical Red Riding Hood spinoffs, Granny is depicted as more than a little oblivious. It’s unclear whether she’s supposed to be Blind of experiencing dementia, but it takes her a long time to recognize that this predatory dog is not her grand daughter, despite touching, smelling, and talking with the dog over an extended period of time. The author could have avoided using these tropes as a crutch if he had wanted to bother.
- Misconceptions about stranger danger: at the bottom, we’ll discuss how concepts like ‘don’t talk to strangers’ put children at harm.
- ‘Good / Bad’ ‘poor/wealth’ false dichotomy – The villain, Mr. Dog, eventually retreats back to ‘The wild side of town’ and I think we all know what that means – the side of the tracks where targeted and vulnerable people are forced to live. The following line suggests that there is something inherently nefarious about people who live in urban and impoverished areas: “That bad dog slipped and tripped over his miserable tail — right out of the house, back to the wild side of town.” We discuss this more in the Wealth Inequality series, but please point this out to your kiddos the biases and assumption a White settler colonist author carries with him in terms of viewing townships and ghettos as dens of iniquity, as if that ‘side of town’ are where the ‘bad dog’ belongs.
- Centering privilege & erasing targeted/vulnerable groups – Along with the above line comes implication that all is well when predators stick to ‘that side’ of town – among the children who live there. This is not a happy ending. Mr. Dog will find children who don’t have people they can run to. The author just doesn’t care because those are children from ‘the wild side.’
- ‘Bad’ Dog – We’ve gone over this everywhere – but it boils down to, we can’t solve damaging culturally acceptable behavior (like racism! And rape culture!) until we accept that there are not good or bad people. There is no objective value judgement on our core being. We are all complicated people who do good and bad things. Once we accept that we, too, can do good and bad things, the closer we all get to acknowledging our problematic behavior and putting a stop to it. Once we accept that people can abuse and attack us without being bad people, we can set boundaries with people who we see as good but who are doing bad things to us.
Topics to discuss with kiddos:
Coercion is an artificial manipulation of trust.
These manipulations start small and builds up, like a lobster in cold water slowly being boiled alive. Predators will use these tactics to manipulate targets into getting their target to submit to them.
The following tactics are used by abusers and predators to manipulate people they have power over. These tactics work because of the norms that authority (us as parents, educators, and broader society such as TV and stories) force our children to internalize while they are young.
Cultural norm: Familiar people are safer than strangers.
We’re wired to see familiar faces and people like us as safer. This is the whole reason for religion and tribalism – if we can quickly identify people who share common backgrounds and values, we can save energy vetting strangers and get to work collaborating.
How Abusers take advantage of this norm: We are much more likely to be targeted and abused by someone who we’re already connected to. Predators take pains to insert themselves into a target’s life to establish familiarity. They coach soccer, they are aides at school, they become trusted members of the community.
Even strangers can drive up and use the “Hey, your mom sent me” tactic to lure kids into a false sense of familiarity. Knowing a parent’s name, where a child goes to school, or anything about them creates a false sense of familiarity and trust between a predator and their target.
How this shows up in the story:
“Are you Pretty Salma?” asked a stranger.
Mr. Dog knows her name. They must have friends in common, or he knows her family. Seems safe, right?
Cultural norm: Favors must be returned.
Remember in the Wealth Inequality series when I mentioned that multiple marginalization is exponential, not cumulative? This is a part of that. While folks with more power and privileges might be more comfortable with receiving because they are raised receiving a disproportionate amount of resources and there are no consequences for when they don’t reciprocate. There are fewer risks for failing to reciprocate to a compliment, a gift, or a common resource.
On the flip side – those who have targeted identities learn early that gifts and favors come with a price. By the nature of a hierarchical society, power and resources must flow up. When these things flow down, that causes a dissonance in the system and those at the top get UPSET.
Example: Affirmative action. White people get their panties in a bunch over this, but not about legacy placements. Rich people use common resources such as paved roads and public libraries without shame, but when the working poor need food stamps to survive while working two shifts at Walmart, OH HEAVENS!
How Abusers take advantage of this norm: Not reciprocating to a compliment or favor (even an unwanted one) causes a person with less power cognitive pain, triggering fear and anxiety.
How this shows up in the story:
‘Well this basket is much too heavy for such a pretty little head,’ Said Mr. Dog. ‘Allow me to carry it for you.'”
“Salma did feel a bit dizzy from the heat, so she agreed to let Mr. Dog carry her basket.”
Mr. Dog gives Salma a compliment “pretty little head” and helps her with a problem she’s having. Thanks to the way we’ve trained girls to avoid saying ‘No.’ her options are limited, and she’s unknowingly entered along a path without her consent.
Being Nice & Avoiding No
Cultural norm: Be nice, comply, and keep the peace.
As a person who is knows how to identify coercion tactics, it is STILL hard to say no and extricate myself from these kinds of situations. Thanks to the implicit threat of what happens when we set boundaries and break the pattern of politeness.
We’re trained young to avoid saying ‘no.’ From how we’ll hurt granny’s feelings if we don’t give her a hug, to the way our parents flip out when we refuse requests to clear the table. This is why it’s so important to monitor our reactions as parents and educators when our children refuse to obey.
Humans follow a fairly standard chain of conversation and interaction that requires each person plays their part. To unpack this with younger kids and autistic kids, The Conversation Train is a great resource to unpack and analyze the elements of a conversation, and the fallout that we face when we fail to act as expected.
How Abusers take advantage of this norm: When children are conditioned to keep the peace and let others override our boundaries (or we’re taught we’re not allowed to have boundaries at all), attackers take advantage of our unwillingness and fear of disrupting polite conversation.
How this shows up in the story:
“After a while [of helping Salma with her basket], Mr Dog asked, ‘What are you wearing on your feet?’
‘Sandals,’ replied Pretty Salma.
‘They must be making your little feet very hot.’ he said, ‘Why don’t I wear them for you?'”
By now, Mr. Dog has established himself as a friendly, helpful person. Even if Salma doesn’t want to share her sandals, it’d be rude to say no. Rather than risk his anger or offense, it’s just easier to hand over the sandals. Even if that is a rather weird and uncomfortable request.
Consistency of Identity / Behavior
Cultural norm: We are static identities with set personalities, and should behave in compliance with who we are.
We experience cognitive dissonance and discomfort when we behave in ways that feel out of character. If we see ourselves as ‘good people,’ we’ll act in kind. If we’re ‘the troublemaker’ at school, it’s hard to break out of that identity and easier to fall into trouble-making habits. If we take on the identity of frail, weak, or courageous among our friends, we don’t want to seem ‘fake’ so we’ll play that part when we’re with them.
If you want someone to help you, you ask for a tiny, easy favor. This establishes a pattern of behavior and identity of hte helper/helpee. Sales people use this tactic to sell windows and tupperware. They’ll ask “I need to grab something out of my car real quick. Mind if I let myself in so you don’t have to get up?”
By establishing ourselves as the kind of people who trust this salesperson to let themselves into our homes, we trust that person more, and we’ll buy more windows and tupperware from them. It’s a sneaky manipulation.
How Abusers take advantage of this norm: Abusers establish a false relationship. The abuser is someone who the target has trusted before. The abuser has requested small favors, and we give them. Breaking that cycle comes with a risk – “You gave me a hug yesterday. Why not a hug today? What’s your problem?”
How this shows up in the story:
Mr. Dog goes on to suggest Salma would feel cooler without her wrap, and offers to wear it. He then goes on to ask for ntama (head wrap) and beads – and this time, he doesn’t even give an excuse for why it would be beneficial to take these articles off her body.
They’ve established a pattern of behavior in this relationship – he takes, and she gives, and this is how it’s been and will continue to be. If Salma were to try to break this cycle, it would cause a disruption – a conflict. And she’s been trained to keep the peace.
Cultural norm: It’s impolite to not address the last thing a person has said, particularly if what they have said is an escalation in the conversation.
Finally Mr. Dog reaches a point where Salma can’t take any more. She’s reached a point at which the discomfort of what he’s doing is beyond the pain it would cause her to break the peace.
How Abusers take advantage of this norm: When an abuser is willing to break norms, it upends our sense of normalcy – most of us have not been trained on how to react when someone else is not holding up their side of the conversation. Or worse – we’re trained to smooth things over, accept it, and take the hit so we can return to peace.
When an abuser derails a call for boundaries, this puts the onus on the person being attacked to go on the defensive. They must become the person making a big deal of things – calling repeatedly for boundaries (“nagging”), or refusing to be sidetracked (“being a hardass bitch”). Abusers use gaslighting to distort what’s really going on and further isolate and target the person they are attacking. Was the request too large? Did he not hear me? Am I being unreasonable?
How this shows up in the story:
“Salma began to miss her things. But when she asked for them back, Mr. Dog only said ‘Some music will help us beat the heat. Won’t you teach me a song?’ So Salma tried to teach him her favorite song.”
Leveraging & hostage-taking
Cultural norm: We are responsible for keeping our possessions (and children, pets, and potential future victims) safe.
Grooming involves a slow process where the attacker and target develop a relationship. The abuser will insert themselves into friend groups or isolate their target, encouraging them to cut ties with family and friends. They can gain access via joint bank accounts, access to medication, share housing, and have access and physical bearing over pets, children, and other loved ones who rely on the target for care.
How Abusers take advantage of this norm:
Attackers know targets are afraid to say no, and they will draw out the soft coercion for as long as possible. By the time that stops working, they’ve isolated targets and gained access to things they need – bank accounts, friend groups, pets, possessions, medicine, purses – they will grab anything a target needs to survive, and hold it hostage.
How this shows up in the story:
“‘I need a lot more practice,’ said Mr. Dog. ‘And until I learn to sing, you won’t get your things back!”
A note on victim blaming:
Mr. Dog is deftly manipulating Salma’s discomfort to be her own fault. She never should have said yes to him carrying that basket. She never should have taught him that song. As any victim-blaming, enabling parent or onlooker would tell her – you brought this on yourself, just leaving the house, being pretty like that. Being too lazy to carry her own basket. Being too polite. Talking to strangers.
Once the person being attacked has given a signal that they are uncomfortable and seeking ways to extricate themselves, this is when things escalate.
Pay attention. This is how we get raped and rapists get away with plausible deniability.
The moment we say “Stop,” this is when things escalate from soft coercion to violence. This is why we are so hesitant and afraid to give a clear “NO. STOP.”
The abuser, seeing that they need to take overt control of the situation, starts to resort to overt violence – threats, physical restraint, and scary, scary behavior.
This is the root behind why women smile and walk away quietly when we get cat-called. This is why we give out fake numbers at bars. This is why we stop responding to people who send us creepy messages on the internet. We can’t afford to escalate things, because then not only will we get raped, we’ll also get beaten or murdered.
How this shows up in the story:
“Salma begged, Salma pleaded. ‘Mr. Dog, Mr. Dog, please give me back my things!’
Mr. Dog growled. ‘Shhh! you will never, ever get your things back! Now run away, little girl, before I bite you in two!'”
He could have just as easily isolated her and kept her with him, if he had more than theft in mind for her. If she will never get her things back – and those things were what she needed to survive, she would never be able to leave him.
But luckily, this is a children’s story. Her body is released, and she is able to run to her grandfather.
As soon as Salma is free of Mr. Dog, she runs to her grandfather – a person in her security network who she can trust to:
- BELIEVE her
- ASK her how she wants to be supported
- TAKE ACTION to support her
In transformative justice practices to support survivors of sexual violence, this is called resourcing. Salma quickly takes stock of her resources (her grandfather) and connects with him.
He does exactly the right thing:
- Listens to her and believes her.
- Asks her how he can support her instead of telling her what he thinks she should do.
- Follows her direction on how to mitigate harm an seek justice.
How this breaks the cycle of abuse:
Salma didn’t gain a grandfather. He was already a resource for her, long before the book opens. At some point, Salma and her grandfather developed a relationship where she could trust that he would BELIEVE her in an event like this, and trust that he would DO SOMETHING to help her stay safe.
At this point in the story, it’s a great time to ask your kids to identify people who would listen and believe them, who they could trust to help them, even in ambiguous situations, even at the earlier stages of coercion when something feels off, but they can’t explain why.
Reducing consequential trauma
I’m sure there is a word for this, but I’m in a rush. It’s not secondary trauma, let’s call it ‘consequential trauma’ for now. We’re talking about the trauma of the fallout after the abuse ceases.
Targets must never be punished for reporting abuse.
Most of us agree on that. EXCEPT. ‘Punishment’ comes in many forms, and is highly individualistic. Not just victim-blaming (“You should have avoided it” / “You brought this on yourself“), but also shame and guilt over the consequences of reporting on attackers.
How this shows up in the story:
“When Mr. Dog say Ka Ka Motobi the Bogeyman and his gang, he got a terrible fright.
FRIGHT. This is an age appropriate scene for young children, because Mr. Dog doesn’t suffer something big and scary that kids can’t comprehend (like jail, or vigilante justice). He just gets a quick startle and runs off.
This is great because it’s simple to understand, and not overwhelming for Salma. One of that primary things that keeps targets from reporting abuse is that thanks to that manipulation of trust, targets have relationships with their survivors, and shame threatens targets in multiple ways.
Targets may hesitate to report abuse for reasons such as (non-comprehensive list):
- they care about their attacker and don’t want their attacker to be hurt, as is the case in most domestic abuse situations.
- they are worried they will be judged for caring about their attacker.
- they are told they are making a big deal out of nothing.
- abuse goes both ways (as it often does), for fear of consequences going in both directions.
- fear that the consequences for their attacker will impact the target and people they care for (such as losing shared income from an attacker, and losing their home or custody of their children as a result of an abusive partner being imprisoned)
- fear that they will take on (or reveal a perceived) identity of a victim (ex: being labeled as a ‘battered woman’), reinforcing the idea that there is something inherently wrong with a person that draws that kind of abuse or that kind of person (see notes on problematic issues above on labeling sides)
An example of this is in many biographies about Maya Angelou (Rise is our current favorite.) If you’re not familiar with Angelou’s history – she is sexually attacked, her attacker is caught, and shortly after – her attacker is found dead, presumably murdered as a result of what he did to Angelou.
Angelou, as a young child, presumes some responsibility for the violence that befell her attacker. She experiences selective mutism, and long term trauma as a result of wrestling with what she perceives to be ‘her part’ in her attacker’s death.
This is exactly what we, as people in our children’s security network, must be cautious to avoid.
We must assure our children that the only person responsible for what happens to an attacker is the person doing the attacking.
- Targets are not responsible for preventing attacks on future targets of their attacker.
- Targets are not ‘at fault’ for what happened to them.
- Targets are not at fault for consequences of their attackers actions
The book ‘That Uh Oh Feeling’ handles this deftly – in it, we see the protagonist worry about reporting too soon, over a subtle feeling, and worrying about what will happen to the man who is/could be grooming her. Adults take her seriously, believe her, and take steps to keep her safe, without making a huge dramatic scene or dramatically firing, beating, or murdering her attacker in front of her.
What happens to this attacker is not the target’s problem and the consequences to him are not her responsibility to deal with.
The only responsibility our kids should feel is being open and honest about how they are feeling about their interactions with an abuser, or even just anyone or any action that makes them feel uncomfortable. They need to trust that how we protect them won’t be disproportionate to how they feel, and that we won’t cause additional trauma by putting the guilt of the outfall onto the person being attacked.
The Real Danger of ‘Stranger Danger’
“And she never talked to strangers again”
At the end of the book, Salma vows to never talk to strangers again. This is super damaging, implying that strangers are the only people we should be wary around.
As if abuse from a loved one or a trusted person isn’t the same. As if targets of domestic violence are somehow better off, and therefore less reliable as reporters. NO.
With that one line, the author undid the lesson from above about using familiarity as a coercion tactic. Unpack this with your kids, and make sure they know that talking to strangers is neither a cause of abuse, (victim-blaming!), nor do strangers pose any more or less of a risk of abuse than people within our family and communities.
For more resources to help you or anyone else handle this complicated topic, check out the BATJC’s resources on transformative justice after/during sexual violence, as they expand a transformative justice framework to holistically support the community in a sexual violence situation.
What kids should walk away with:
Create a security network. Update it every few months. Include at least one person outside the family.
If something like this happens to them, there is not something inherently wrong with them or that draws this to them
- While there are things kids can do to help keep themselves safe, if they are targeted, it’s never because of something they did. It is not their fault. Attack is the responsibility of the attacker
- If something feels weird, tell a person in your security network while it still feels silly to bring it up. It’s courageous to talk about things before they escalate.
This behavior is a normal part of our culture, but it should not be and does not have to be.
- Kids don’t have to feel helpless. There are things they can do to help others, and to change our culture. Such as believing friends when they report. Talking about weird feelings with a trusted adult. Telling friends to create their own security networks. Being a trusted person within someone’s security network and having a trusted adult to come to when a friend reports.
- WE TOO, CAN BE ABUSERS. And so can our kids. Even if we don’t realize it. Even if we don’t think our behavior is abusive. Read books about predators and villains with a perspective of villains. Prepare kids for the eventuality for when WE are the ones causing harm. So we can own it, apologize, make amends – and most importantly, keep those we have power over safe.
- Tell (age-appropriate with a non-traumatic level of detail) stories of when you, or someone you loved, was attacked, or even when you were the one doing harm. I can’t tell you how many of my white male friends don’t believe rape culture or racism is A THING until I point out how these things have impacted me, and then go on to provide evidence from every other woman I know.
Read more books about establishing boundaries and claiming our agency, and observing consent