This Mama’s Take on Stranger Danger

danger_0001We were on our way to a school celebration. The kids were excited even if they had to dress up and brush their hair and wear shoes instead of their customary rubber boots. It was the culmination of a 6-month study on the culture of Mexico and there was going to be a piñata! Tacos! A Mexican Hat Dance! Well, the boys weren’t thrilled about performing the dance, but we were a cheery bunch as we drove. Suddenly, there on the side of the road two elderly women stood beside a car in a culvert. I stopped and asked if we could help.
“I’m not sure you can,” one woman said with resignation. “We are well and truly stuck.”
The kids piled out of the Suburban. It began to rain. I looked at my watch; we would be late. I told the women I thought I could pull them out. We had to lay in the dirt to hook up the chains, our backs got muddy, leaves and sticks were in our hair, but I got the right angle and we slowly hauled them from the culvert. Everyone cheered. We exchanged names and went on our way, late, disheveled, but happy. At the celebration the boys left mud prints on the Mexican hat to their enthusiastic delight.
Three days later a warm thank you note and a coupon for 6 banana splits arrived in the mail.

It was a cold December night and the kids and I walked from the ferry parking lot to Ivar’s for fish-n-chips. Several homeless people squatted or sat on the sidewalk rattling a few coins in paper cups. They looked cold, hungry. The kids were uncomfortable and wanted to help, Ignoring them is mean! Our son said. I asked him to count how many people were on the sidewalk. We placed our order and I added 3 large clam chowders with extra crackers. I passed them out to the kids and as we walked back to the car they held them out to the chilled and dirty men. Their responses were heartwarming. They grinned and said Thank you, Merry Christmas, Bless you. One man said, “I hope Santa brings you everything you ask for.” We returned to the car with our food and talked about how people end up on the streets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the years of raising 4 children to adulthood I confess I have never been able to warn them of stranger danger. I love strangers! I always have. Throughout my life I have had adventures, opportunities, and escapades born of my willingness to talk to people, all people—farmers, children, old men, Norwegians, hikers, beekeepers. I learned things, faced fears, and took detours. I was invited into people’s homes while traveling, and offered jobs that helped put me through college. What can I say? To this day strangers have enhanced my life.  How could I deny this rich navigation of the world to my children?

Because the fact is, the abuse or abduction we are afraid of is statistically more likely to occur with someone the child knows—a neighbor, relatives, friends, a babysitter– than a stranger. If a child is raised with distrust of strangers, what happens if they get lost and need help? And what about Halloween when we watch smiling from the street as our costumed children ask friends, neighbors, and strangers for a treat? When is warning our children about stranger danger appropriate?

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We do need to have conversations with our kids about feeling uncomfortable when ANYONE’S behavior makes them feel ‘weird’ or they are asked to keep a secret. We should be on high alert when any adult asks a child to keep a ‘secret.’ Secrets are scary and kids should tell Mom and Dad when someone asks. Maybe the warning to our children should be changed to Secret Danger.  More harm could be averted this way, instead of believing that quirky folks, and old women with whiskers can be dangerous.

Learning to be comfortable with the unfamiliar, including people, is a wonderful gift to pass on to children. It builds resiliency, and teaches them that the world is a good place, a safe place, to grow into. Pay attention to your own behavior with new people and reach out, listen to their stories, invite, or offer them something no one else can—a glimpse into your own generous and loving life where there is no such thing as a stranger, only a person you haven’t met yet.  Even if they are muddy and stuck on the side of a road.  You might just get a banana split for your efforts.

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