My third grade daughter Lorelei had her first sleepover last night.
She rode her friend Lara's bus home on Friday afternoon, and I arranged to pick her up at Lara's house on Saturday morning. I was so curious about the time at her friends: Would she have a blast, or would we get a call late at night to pick her up? Would she come home comparing our house with her friend's house? Would she like being in a house where there were three sisters, not one girl and two boys? Would she eat the junk food I keep away from our pantry? Would she watch movies, play on computers, cry a little out of homesickness?
I got my first clue into how her night was going when I received an email from her friend. From her third grade friend's personal email account. It was a little surprising, but fun, to exchange emails back and forth with Lara as she relayed my comments with Lorelei, and then typed Lorelei's responses back the other way. It was a little surprising, but fun, to receive funny videos in my inbox that involved big smiles and lots of hair-flinging by the two of them.
This morning her younger brothers and I went to pick her up. Lara's father is a charming Russian expatriate whose proper, creative use of the English language had me in stitches; the two of us chatted while my trio and his two youngest daughter climbed trees in his backyard.
After enough tree-climbing and chatting, we piled into my messy Suburban and the boys riddled her with questions. I was glad--like them, I wanted to know everything. Lorelei was happy to comply. Her afternoon and evening and morning included lots of wonderful little adventures: a bike ride on a borrowed bike, take-out pizza and not one but two helpings of chocolate chip cookies, a late-night walk through the neighborhood with flashlights, and even an hour of work on the project that initially brought the girls together: a birthday gift, a homemade math dictionary for the girls' beloved math specialist.
But what changed everything was the story Lorelei told of Lara guessing the email address of their classmate, Owen. They typed on "o" and then Owen's last name, and guessed he had a gmail account. Ten minutes after they sent Owen an email, a response came from one Oliver ____ (insert last name here). Lorelei reported that the two girls erupted in laughter and that Oliver informed them they had the wrong guy. Lara's big sister stuck her head in and said, "Yeah, I did that once, but the guy was really mad about it." More laughter.
And, just like that, my daughter interacted with a strange man online.
I know, I know--I'm blowing this somewhat out of proportion. I didn't say anything at the time. But the What Ifs started marching into my brain with Stormtrooper strength: What if he had engaged them in conversation? What if he had requested pictures? What if they had sent him the videos Lara had sent me? What if he started slowly, but surely built up trust with them, and then asked for things they should never, ever give?
Sigh. Just like that, the conversation about online safety needs to happen. Despite the fact that Lorelei is only in third grade. Despite the fact that she doesn't have an email address (yet). Despite the fact that all computer use is done in our kitchen. Despite the fact that she's so very naive to all the horrible stuff and creepy people that are out there.
I've turned to a new page of parenting, a new phase of guiding my daughter through potentially rough seas. I need a few days to let it soak in, think about what I am going to say to her, and then...that conversation will begin.