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Walk this way

Can we teach our kids not to walk like victims?

Back in 2007, when police were hunting for a killer stalking moms at the Town Center at Boca Raton mall, my daughters were only 7 and 8 years old. I didn't want to scare them, but I didn't want us to end up dead either, so this is what I told them:

Don't ever dawdle in the parking lot. Keep your head up, get in the car, lock the door and leave right away.

I've drilled this into their heads so many times that our speedy escape from malls has become as habitual as wearing seat belts.

Always be aware of your surroundings. Be confident. Don't walk like a victim.

Those are the lessons I want my daughters to remember.

There are horrible things in life — like Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon — that are beyond our singular control. But there are some things we can do as individuals to at least reduce our likelihood of harm and wrench some of that power back.

That's why I felt validated when I read about a recent study that suggests attackers choose their victims based on the way they walk.

I'm really not a morbid mom, but this whole idea of a "victim's walk" has stayed with me ever since I was in college and spent plenty of time walking around on my own.

After taking a self-defense class and clocking hours in a work-study job at the campus police station, I had enough knowledgeable crime folks tell me about the importance of walking with purpose that I began to believe it.

Now a new study from the Journal of Interpersonal Violence suggests that some criminals are very good at sensing weakness based on the way people walk. In the report titled "Psychopathy and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability," the authors surveyed 47 inmates at a maximum-security prison in Ontario and found that social predators are very good at picking victims based on their gait.

The authors secretly filmed 12 people walking — eight women and four men, some of whom had been attacked before. They showed the footage to a group of inmates, some of whom exhibited interpersonal traits commonly associated with psychopathy — manipulativeness, a lack of empathy, superficial friendliness — and asked them whether or not each person would make a good victim.

The “victim ratings” were then compared against each person’s actual history of victimization. Sure enough, the people whom the psychopaths picked as “likely victims” were usually the ones who had been victimized in the past. These people often “walked like an easy target”—slowly, asynchronously, with short strides.

Criminals aren’t looking for a challenge. They prefer easy pickings who are timid and inattentive.

The study's small sample size means this isn't conclusive evidence.

It doesn't mean people who walk with determination will never be victimized. It doesn't mean some people deserve to be victims because of the way they walk.

And it certainly doesn't mean a brisk walk could have saved the women attacked at that Boca mall in that still-unsolved case.

But it does reinforce this mother's intuition.

With an entire spaced-out generation walking with their heads down, bent over their smart phones, it's seems wiser than ever to add some body language to the life lessons we need to impart to our kids.

Shoulders back, back straight. Walk down the street like you own it. And maybe everybody around you will believe it.