Posts Tagged ‘children talking to strangers’

Stranger Danger

This past summer I was in my local library when the town recreation center’s day camp wandered in as part of a field trip.  The kids, ages 6 – 11, were very excited to be there.  Both library computers were in use by adults and one of them was me.  A little kid came up to me and asked if she could use the computer.

“Well, I’m using it right now,” I replied, “but if there is something you are looking for in the catalog, you can ask the librarian to help you.”

“I’ll wait,” she said.  “And by the way:  my name is Meghan, and I’m 8!”  Without my prodding (I was busy working on a writing project that had a deadline), Meghan chattered away, proceeding to tell me all about her life, her school, her camp, her siblings, where she lives, and where she likes to go swimming.  Finally the other computer became available.  “‘Bye!” she waved cheerily.

I couldn’t really understand why I felt unsettled by her conversation.  She was a charmer!  But then it happened again, this time on the lake where I was kayaking.  An 11-year-old girl steered her kayak over to my boat, and a similar conversation ensued.

“Hi! My name is Cindy!  What’s your name?  Where do you live?  I live in the house over there!” she prattled, pointing to a clapboard cottage on the lake.  Just like it had been with Meghan, Cindy enthusiastically rattled off her age, her school, and what she likes best about summer.  She told me about her parents’ work.  And then it struck me:  I couldn’t even remember the last time a child that I didn’t previously know had interacted with me.  In my home town, and probably in most cities around the US, we’re teaching our kids about “Stranger Danger;” we’re teaching them to be suspicious of anyone unknown to them, lest grievous harm befall them.  Our kids know never to initiate conversation with a stranger, and not even to answer an unknown person’s question unless their parents are present.   Why did I feel uncomfortable, despite our clearly innocuous and delightful dialogue?    What would people think of me, clearly someone previously unknown to that child, making conversation?

Now I’m not saying that rural Maine is immune to danger, or to lurking sickos.  I don’t care where you live:  go to any government website that tracks sex offenders, enter your zip code, and find out who your neighbors really are.  Rural places do hold an attraction for misfits and offenders because they will be mostly left alone.  They can live far from “civilization” and it’s geographically practical for them to keep away from schools and other places like shopping malls where children may congregate.

Surely evil people are in the minority.  We all know and believe that.  But living in the city, where nearly everyone is a stranger, it’s simply not worth taking a chance if it involves our children’s safety; one cannot be too cautious.  And so we’ve worked hard to remove the natural instinct of a child to interact in the uninhibited, curious and vivacious manner that they favor.  Recently in Maryland young siblings were held in police custody and their parents threatened with a Department of Social Services investigation for child endangerment because they allowed their children to walk home from the park on their own, without adult supervision.  Not only did the parents believe their children were capable of finding their way home on their own, they chose to believe that their children would be safe doing so.  This ideology is part of the “free-range” movement, which assumes certain risks are miniscule compared to the benefit of raising children who will be capable, self-sufficient and independent.  I honestly don’t know if these Maryland children’s suburb is safe.  There are certainly areas of L.A. and Baltimore where my own children grew up where I would not feel comfortable letting them roam.

Here in rural Maine, kids are bused up to an hour away from their home to attend public school.  With so few children per town, kids not only end up knowing all the kids in their town, but thanks to community schools that may have attendees from five or ten different hamlets, they know a lot of people from a wide-ranging area.  They need to engage with others if they want to widen their world, and they do, because they can.  Rural Maine allows kids to be themselves, without the cautionary fears or suspicions that have spun out of control in our cities, justified or not.  In general, rural Maine is a safe and comforting place for children to grow up.

Living in Maine, I’ve changed.  I now believe that if you live in a place where the risk for your child’s safety is such that it keeps kids from saying hello to a stranger or walking to a friend’s house to play, it is not a community in which to raise a child.  Period.  There are other choices, places where your kids can be kids, in all their innocence and sense of wonder.

And that’s the way life should be.