A few weeks ago, while stuck in traffic, my 5-year old son asked me from the backseat, “Hey Mom, can I roll down the window and say hello to that man in the car next to us?” My immediate response was, “no honey, we don’t know him.” His response, “but he looks like a nice guy.” I nearly drove the car off Williston Road as I immediately started thinking of ominous strangers and what could happen to my son if he trusted the wrong person.
My husband and I jokingly refer to Henry as “The Mayor.” Growing up, Henry was always outgoing and friendly; often saying hello to people in the grocery store or at the park. Now, he even says hello to people down below from up high on the chairlift when he goes skiing. I am proud that he is so friendly and that he seeks social interaction. And while we have always been open about strangers, I was deeply concerned about his request to say hello to someone he didn’t even know because he looked “nice.”
With the summer ahead of us, and Henry actively playing with the neighborhood children I decided it was time to really have an in-depth conversation about strangers with my son. So I did a modicum of research online and broached the subject with him. I asked him if he knew what a stranger was. His response was no, despite the fact that we had talked about strangers before. I went on to tell him that strangers are people that we don’t know, they could be bad or they could be good, but we just don’t know. I waver between telling him that there are bad people out there who like to hurt children and telling him that he will be safe all the time. Anyway, after I told him who strangers were, he sat quietly in the car (we have a lot of good conversations in the car). I kept my mouth shut waiting for him to say something, knowing he was “digesting” what I had just told him. Instead he replied, “Mom, why do cement trucks spin?”
I could see I needed to do a little more research about how to talk to my child about strangers, so I called in the expert….I called my cousin Jayme, who in my opinion is an expert on all things children. She’s a pre-school and kindergarten teacher and has a Master’s in Education. And frankly, she’s just damn good with children. Yes, I’m good with children, especially mine…but she’s just always good. I’m babbling.
Anyway, she and I got to talking about strangers, and how the term “stranger danger” used to be how you taught your kids about strangers. Children were taught anyone they don’t know is a stranger. But what about the post-lady? Henry “knows” her, right? He sees her every day when she delivers the mail…but I would hope that he would know not to get a ride home from school with her if she randomly offered. And if we are constantly telling our kids to not talk to strangers, and then they need help someday because mommy fell off the ladder while cleaning the gutters at the house, who are they going to ask for help now that they know they can’t talk to strangers? Tricky, huh? What’s the word I just used? Tricky. Jayme went on to tell me that now the word on the street (as if talking about strangers is trendy), is that you have to tell kids that strangers are “tricky” people. For example, an adult who asks a child for help, is considered a “tricky” person…no adult needs help from a child and the only reason they’d ask a child for help is to try to trick them into going with them. Or an adult that asks a child to keep a secret from his/her parents is doing something tricky. It seems that this approach prepares the child to be on their guard for a tricky person, rather than just identifying people he knows or doesn’t know.
I’ve just barely scratched the surface here in this post with this concept of talking to our children about strangers, let alone their safety in general. It’s an ongoing process here in our household. I want to let my child out of the house and trust that he is going to know what to do if placed in a difficult situation. This education of my son is not going to happen overnight…but for this one specific topic, I wish it would. And that is really hard. We’re working on it. How do you work on teaching your child about personal safety?