If you’re a parent of young kids in North America, you’ve maybe heard the term “tricky people.” Instead of telling kids not to talk to strangers, which was the norm when I was growing up, parents are encouraged to teach them how to spot manipulation. The idea is that while most strangers are fine and wouldn’t seek to hurt a child, there are warning signs kids can look for to help them make safe choices. A person’s looks don’t matter as much as what they say or want to do.
For example, safe adults will not ask a child for help with something, like carrying groceries to a car. If a safe adult needs help, they’ll ask another adult. One mom who taught this to her kids believes it may have saved them from being abducted or abused.
I didn’t realize it until recently, but my life has always been fortified by critical thinking. When I was a kid, my parents taught me how to say no to strangers. When I was in high school, I learned how to discern good influences from bad ones. In university I learned how to fact-check and read between the lines. I’ve become quite fluent in thinking critically and often assume that it’s a natural part of being human.
This assumption was rocked when I went to Moldova, a post-Soviet country in Eastern Europe. As Europe’s poorest country, Moldova has become a booming source country for trafficking victims. About 25% of the country’s GDP comes from remittances, meaning that an enormous number of people leave the country to find work and send money back to their loved ones. One in five children in Moldova has one or both parents working abroad.
Traffickers target women and girls in the villages, where poverty abounds and kids have less protection. I went to visit some of the villages and felt like I’d gone back in time. It was exactly how I would’ve pictured my grandmother growing up in rural Finland.
I met a 12 year-old girl with blue eyes and a broken arm. Her parents were nowhere to be found. Her mom was working in another part of the country as a bathroom attendant, charging people for using the toilet (you can imagine how little money that brings in), and her dad was a field labourer who would go wherever there was work. But poverty wasn’t the only thing that made this girl vulnerable.
I interviewed Vladimir Ubeivolc, the director of Beginning of Life – an organization that rehabilitates trafficking survivors – and he explained that one of the biggest problems in Moldova was the lack of critical thinking:
“We don’t have a culture of asking questions. In our school system, if you ask a question, it means you are stupid. And this is part of our post-Soviet mentality, because during the Soviet times, we were not allowed to ask questions.”
I can’t imagine growing up in a culture where questions are frowned upon. In my experience, teachers loved when we asked a question because it meant we were engaged and wanting to learn. Being discouraged from being curious and cautious would have made my life so different. It doesn’t require a robust imagination to see how easy it for traffickers to entice young girls who don’t know how to spot a “tricky person.”
Here are some Facebook ads that my friend who lives in Moldova saw on her phone. I’ve blocked out the contact info but you can get the gist.
These could be legitimate job offers, but it seems a bit odd that someone would be willing to cover the cost of a ticket, accommodations, and insurance – on top of a salary – just to hire a waitress. Most of us know that if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. But if you’re a young woman in Moldova who needs money and has never learned to spot manipulation, ads like this can be enticing.
This is why Vladimir Ubeivolc and his team run critical thinking courses for young people. Teaching kids to break out of their cultural mould and think critically is one of the best ways to traffic-proof their lives.
It raises the question: what are some of the ways our culture makes young people vulnerable to traffickers? What are we marketing to them as truth? Is our obsession with consumerism teaching them that having an expensive purse or nice nails makes it okay for them to trust someone who offers that to them “for free?” Are there hints of racism or sexism in our speech that send the subtle message that some people have more value than others?
If we want to traffic-proof our young people, we need to help them to think critically. But we also need to examine our own lives and seriously consider what message our actions proclaim.