I was all set to come back today with a post about what I learned from my unplugged week, but something strange just happened to me that I want to talk about.
I was on my way home after walking my husband to work this morning, when I decided to sit in my favorite spot by the stream near my house. For the last few days, I’ve had the urge to just find a patch of grass and stare at the sky. A woman walking her dog passed me, and then her son, who was following, stopped and walked up to me. He asked my name; I told him; he told me his name, and we shook hands.
His mother who had stopped a few yards away sharply called him over. She leaned down to look him in the eye and started scolding him. I didn’t catch much of what she said because of the rush of the water, but she was visibly angry and I did overhear her last few loud words, “She’s a STRANGER!” They walked away, and I sat there, a little stunned. First, that she would chide him within a few feet of me, not caring if I overheard her saying things about me, but mostly, I was stunned that the idea of “stranger danger” has permeated so far into our parenting culture that something like an innocuous greeting in view of a parent warranted that kind of a response.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “stranger danger” recently, especially since I read the book, Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. I’m not a parent yet, but I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of life I want to give my kids, and it is not one of fear and mistrust. Obviously, I will teach them to be careful, to be judicious, but I also want to teach them that the world is mostly good—that people are mostly good. I know that no matter how hard I try, I will never be there for every moment of their lives. Instead of frantically trying to keep tabs on them at all times, I would rather spend my time teaching them how to make their own good choices.
My worst nightmare isn’t my child getting kidnapped; it is if they were kidnapped because they didn’t know that they could ask another “stranger” for help. Lenore Skenazy talks about this very thing: “Tell your kids they can talk to strangers. They can ask for help from strangers. What they should never do is go off with strangers… To fine-tune the message, you can tell your kids never to go off with anyone you haven’t preapproved beforehand. Simple as that.”
This makes so much more sense to me than “never talk to strangers, under any circumstances!” Teaching our children to be friendly and sociable, while still being smart, prepares them much more for the real world. “Stranger danger” that calls for running and screaming with the least provocation is not only drastic, but potentially harmful, turning a normal person into a “suspicious stranger” that is now someone to be wary of.
Our kids should understand that people are good; that people want to help them; that talking to people, even if they don’t know them, is healthy and normal. They should also be taught to recognize suspicious situations, and have an effective, empowering approach to get away from those situations. We should not be teaching them through fear and ignorance, but through knowledge and empowerment.
And it starts with us. I know it is easier said than done, but the fear-mongering didn’t originate from our children; we created it, and we have to address it. Learn the statistics, distrust the media (whose sole job is to scare you!), and rather than passing on fear, you can pass on the tools they really need.
Respectful comments only, please; let me know your thoughts and experiences on the subject.