Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe, by Gavin De Becker (Random House, 1999, $34.95).

The recent high-school shottings in Littleton, Colo., and Taber, Alta., provide a timely, if tragic background for the release of Gavin De Becker’s new work, Protecting the Gift. A consultant on public safety and security, De Becker has gained special expertise within U.S. government circles in the prediction and management of violence. He is the author of the best selling book The Gift of Fear, which offers insights into the violence sweeping North American culture.

In his latest book, De Becker argues convincingly that instead of being ignored or discounted, fear is a resource that can aid our survival in perilous times. This “gift” of fear is often triggered by what the author describes as our “primitive brain” response. In contrast to our rational or logical brain, the primitive brain is based on intuition and instinct. De Becker writes that feelings of discomfort in the presence of certain individuals should be recognized as an intuitive response to potential danger.

This is not to suggest that parents should fill their children with unfounded worries about every stranger they might meet in the course of the day. Instead, children should be equipped with a few basic strategies that will enable them to recognize legitimate danger and take appropriate action. In some cases, age-old rules such as “Don’t talk to strangers” need to be re-examined in an effort to come to terms with present-day realities.

“Safety starts with knowing that your intuition about people is a brilliant guardian,” De Becker says. “Listening to intuition really means listening to yourself. Like everyone, you’ve had scores of experiences when you listened and were later grateful, and scores of experiences when you chose not to listen and were later regretful. I can’t say it any more clearly that this – to protect your child, you must believe in yourself.”

De Becker takes pains to distinguish between legitimate fear and simple worry. He argues that the avoidance and reduction of violence depend on a clear perception of reality. Unfortunately, worry tends to cloud our perception and can lead to panic or worse.

“True fears and unwarranted fears may at times feel the same,” he says, “but you can tell them apart. True fear is a gift that signals us in the presence of danger; thus it will be based on something you perceive in your environment or circumstance. Unwarranted fear or worry will always be based upon something in your imagination or your memory.”

Protecting the Gift is most effective when it turns to the question of how we might recognize the “pre-incident indicators” of violence. De Becker appears especially prescient in describing the symptoms of what otherwise appears to be random, senseless violence. He has prepared a simple checklist of pre-incident indicators (PINS) that have accompanied most examples of teen shootings. These include alcohol and drug use, addiction to media products, aimlessness, fascination with weapons, experience with guns, access to guns, sullen behaviour, seeking status through violence, threats of violence or suicide, chronic anger, rejection or humiliation, and media provocation.

Although not all of these indicators showed up in the Littleton and Taber shootings, there can be little doubt that even a partial display of these symptoms should alert parents, teachers, principals and other authority figures about a potential tragedy. De Becker readily admits that not all cases of violence feature such pre-incident warnings, but his emphasis inProtecting the Gift is on avoidable tragedies.

The author does not hold the modern news and entertainment industry in high esteem, since reporting extensively on violent situations can in turn create an atmosphere of hysteria and near paranoia. De Becker suggests that in many cases, society has become safer for children, but the incidents of violence are magnified by the media, creating the image of a menacing world.

While the central thrust of the book deals with recognizing potential danger and exploiting fear as a defense mechanism, De Becker’s work also deals with protecting against sexual predators, locating safe babysitters, and advising schools on how to weed out violence-prone students.

De Becker’s arguments are directed primarily to parents, but his lessons are of tremendous benefit to anyone concerned with providing a better environment for young children and teenagers. The book is written in a straightforward style, and includes a lengthy list of appendices which will further help parents educate themselves on this little understood social problem.