Stranger Danger

My son loves people. He always has a smile and a word of greeting. He will often see someone nearby and say to me, “You want to say hi to that friend.” So I will. I do. I say hello to people I don’t know. I talk to men or women who have a friendly look. Not long, and not always, but I do. Because I want to not be afraid of everyone.

On Saturday, we were walking around an older part of town, in and out of small shops and boutiques. We passed an older man smoking out in front of one of the stores. M said, “You want to say hi to that boy?” So we all said hello.

A month ago, when we were on our way home from that rally, M wanted to try standing up on his own on the train. He wasn’t very steady, so a nice man offered his hand for balance. M took it, and he held on through several stops until the man left.

A few weeks ago, we were playing outside, listening to a squirrel moaning up in a tree, and a grandma-aged woman came home helping her husband around the back in a wheelchair. M said, “Hi grandma!” And as much as I tried to explain that she wasn’t his grandma, he insisted, “That’s grandma.” And as she went through the slow task of helping her injured fella into their home, my son jabbered away about how he was playing with the sticks and the dirt and the squirrel that had been up in the tree.

He introduces me to strangers, “That’s my mommy.” He calls anyone younger than twenty his friend. He’ll ask to pet your dog and he’ll show you his new trains or how he rides his bike or which engine is his favorite on his new favorite show.

It’s beautiful to watch. And I honestly wish I could be that open with people sometimes.

So I hate to be the one to take it away from him with warnings about not talking to strangers. We all talk to strangers. Adults do it all the time. Kids need to talk to unknown kids in order to make those little strangers into friends. Same way with us. We’ll never form links or start new friendships if we don’t first, “Say hi to that people.”

Instead of pouring the “stranger danger” over my beautiful, enthusiastic little boy, I plan to teach him to trust his instinct when it comes to people. I plan to let him know that it’s okay if he doesn’t feel like saying “hi.” That if he’s lost, he needs to find someone in authority, a store employee, a police officer or another mommy with kids to help him. Because if he’s lost and afraid to talk to people, how will anyone ever know?

I think that’s a danger in stranger danger. Most strangers are kind and beautiful people. And we shouldn’t hold the fact that we don’t know their names against them. We should, however, learn to trust our instincts, and especially trust the instincts of our children, who tend to be much more in tune with that kind of gut feeling than we often are. We need to listen if they don’t want to go somewhere or be around someone in particular. Because most threats to kids don’t come from some guy in creepy van offering candy to kids at the park. Most of that stuff starts much closer to home.

We talk to strangers all the time. Our doctors were strangers once. The people that sell us groceries are strangers. The Realtors and loan officers who helped us buy our homes. The tow truck driver and insurance agents who take care of our vehicles after an accident. The people sitting next to us on the bus, the train, in church. All strangers, but probably not all that dangerous. And if my little boy can help brighten someone’s day by making them think of their own sons or grandsons, by just being his gregarious little self, who am I to shut that down?

The world will knock my kid around enough. He’ll learn who he can trust and who he can’t. And what I hope for him is that he finds that the former will outnumber the latter by an impossibly large margin. Because I’ve seen a lot of good and beauty in my personal encounters with strangers, with family, with friends, and I would hope that M will learn to surround himself with people like that as he goes through his life. That he will be someone whom others can trust, a happy, kind and enthusiastic person that others will want to be around, too.

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