01 Feb Stranger Danger
Over the years I have witnessed many parents’ reactions as their young children encounter someone they don’t know, which is, of course, just about everyone. A few particular situations have remained beyond vividly in my mind.
I was looking, with droves of others, for Valentine’s Day cards. A little girl walked up and touched my coat. I looked at her, smiled and said, “Hello.” Her mother, from quite far down the aisle sirened, “Stranger Danger!” Staying put, the little girl smiled back at me. I felt as if one of those buzzers that manufacturers put in clothing to prevent theft had gone off. The police might as well have been stuffing me into the back of a patrol car, as the other card hunters turned their eyes to me. The mother called sternly, “Amelia!” I waved to the mother, as the child slowly left, turning back to me over and over again with a smile.
Their reunion was icy. The little girl, said, “I yike that yady. She’s nice.”
“That was a stranger. We do not talk to STRANGERS!”
Valentines in hand I walked over to them. I told the mother I was a nursery school teacher. I wanted to assure her no harm was ever going to come her daughter’s way as far as I was concerned. I felt sorry for her fright.
She curtly and condescendingly said, “We are teaching Amelia to not speak to strangers.” She looked away quickly, definitely dismissing me from the planet altogether. The little girl reached for my hand again. Her mother yanked her away and kept moving. Without saying another thing, I walked to the checkout person.
Years later, I was in the cheese department of a grocery store. A little boy absolutely lunged out from his perch in a shopping cart and grabbed my shoulder. I was surprised but delighted. His mother was apologetic and embarrassed. I told her I adored children and knew all about children’s spontaneity and innocent impulses. She was so grateful that I wasn’t appalled. The little boy held my hand as if I had known him forever. An aisle or so later, I was spotted again. I felt a tug on my jacket – the little boy again. His mother, in a very strong Italian accent, again told me how sorry she was. I let her know I was a nursery school teacher and that I took his wanting to connect with me as a supreme compliment. She opened her purse, took out a pen and piece of paper and had me write down the name of the school, the telephone number, and my name. Pietro started school a few days later and was, along with his parents, a sweet addition to our school. I loved seeing him around the school and we hugged one another daily from then on.
A few days ago I ran to the grocery store to get just a few things, famous last words. I should have gotten a basket to put what I was scurrying around for, but I thought my arms and hands would do the trick. A carton of eggs, a bunch of parsley and a few lemons filled my arms. As I reached for a magazine a lemon fell and rolled across the floor. A little boy ran to get it when his mother shrieked, “That is not yours. Let the woman get it!” I thanked the little boy and semi-apologized to the mother.
“You are not to touch other peoples’ things! You don’t know her.” The boy didn’t know what he’d done wrong. As I was leaving, I heard the mother say, “If you are going to run after lemons that people drop, I won’t be able to take you to the grocery store.” The little boy sat in the cart looking at a lemon his mother was buying and clearly not listening.
I often think about the contrast between these totally by chance meetings. Of course, I know there is always the possibility of a terrible, unthinkable, and heartbreaking outcome where a total stranger could bring harm to a very young person. Yet, I, will always chose Pietro’s mother’s open way. I wish the little lemon fetcher could have been thanked by his mother for trying to help.
It is too bad that strangers have a negative association. Asking your children, when you are out, to stay close to you is wise. It is nicer too. This simple request doesn’t spook them out. They feel you how you love their company. By degrees, as they grow up and the time feels right, explaining why they should be careful won’t be so jarring. Allowing them impromptu connections with people they do not know, with you close by, can broaden their lives immeasurably. The children will be careful and thoughtful and will also feel protected. They will live their little lives fully and without fear.
Written by – Anne Martine Cook. Anne has 40+ years experience teaching nursery school children.
We welcome your comments and questions.