I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than 3-years old stood in her bright orange cart while her mother, standing one arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.
“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”
“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”
Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness.
“We don’t talk to strangers!” the little girl’s mother shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear but for everyone in the entire department to hear as well. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. But instead of smiling politely and wheeling her daughter away to speak with her privately, she made a big ole scene by shouting and pushing the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.
Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.
Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother would include teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people. Sometimes even people we don’t know. In her book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, author Lenore Skenazy points out that Americans watch a lot of television, and the news is always going on about some child being raped, abducted, or snatched. We hear about how “…this kid went into the bathroom and some guy killed him, and [we] become very scared someone is on the prowl for [our] children” (87). This kind of thinking is crazy-making.
At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service – to calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother with children and ask her – this stranger – if she might use her cell phone to call me because we have become separated. He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help, but instead to reassure that person he is heading home and that he will send help back as soon as he can. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of these things into practice.
I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings. After all, at some point, he will need to know how to interact with people he doesn’t know, why not start early? I also think I have enough faith in humanity to believe that most people are not out to abduct or molest or kill my child.
And really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly ill-equipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous. That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. As far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude to other people.
What could be right about that?