Monday, March 24, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

A long time ago, when I was young, poor and very pregnant, I got a flat tire while driving on Route 287. Needless to say, I didn't have Triple A and I didn't have a cell phone. Actually, most people at the time didn't have cell phones. Reaching over my big belly, I started unpacking the trunk to get out the spare. A young man pulled over, asked if I needed help and proceeded to change my tire. He got in his car and drove away. I never saw him again.

I suppose I could have been afraid. I could have sat in my locked car and just rolled the window down a crack and asked him to call for help, but it didn't enter my mind. That's not always the case-I have been in circumstances where I've avoided a stranger, or not asked for help. What's the difference? Perhaps my sixth sense told me he was ok. It's a risk, to be sure. Recently, I was speaking with a group of women about this subject. One told me how as a child, her mother would invite all kinds of people, people she met places, over to dinner. They lived out in the country and sometimes these folks would do some work around the house and then sit down to the dinner table with them. To me it conjures up another time, not just a time when one person could trust another, but also a time when a person could trust their own ability to discern the good from the bad.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost this ability. Who among us today would meet a person on the street and invite them in for dinner? From childhood on, we are taught to fear strangers. This is despite the fact that federal statistics do not show an increase of in child abductions or murders. On an internet advice column a mom asked "My son is very outgoing and friendly. How do I keep him from approaching strangers?" Could you imagine seeking advice on how to quell your child's enthusiastic and outgoing nature? The columnist wrote back what I already know-most children, and people in general, are hurt by people they know. It's not the stranger in the trench coat you need to fear, no matter how many lurid news stories you may see on the subject. The danger is out there, to be sure, but is exaggerated by a media hungry for sensation. Taken to an extreme, this fear of strangers can work against a child. In 2005, a Utah boy went missing in the mountains. The 11 year old boy, Brennan Hawkins, avoided rescue workers for several days because he had been told to stay away from strangers.

Security consultant Gavin de Becker wrote a book about all this, called Protecting the Gift. In addition to advice for parents on how to keep kids safe, it offers valuable insight into teaching your child how to discern who's safe and who's not. He encourages parents to have kids deliberately talk to strangers, in the store, on the street. With parents safely near by, have your school age child ask for directions or for help with a purchase. Afterward, talk together about the person they spoke with: what were they like, did they help, etc. This should be mandatory parenting, like teaching your child their address and how to answer the phone properly. It not only teaches your child social interaction but gets them thinking about who they can trust, why and under what circumstances.

Another important point, raised by de Becker and others, is teaching a child (or anyone, really) to heed their inner voice. You've probably all heard stories of the trusted scout leader, teacher or other authority figure who abused children. Inevitably, someone is quoted saying how nice the person is. We need to get away from the notion that bad people who hurt children are slobbering perverts in trench coats. Instead, we're taught to be nice, especially if we're girls, even when a little voice inside our head is going, "Hmmm, I don't know about this person. Something's not right." What the experts say is that if the siren is going off in your head-listen to it, even to the point of being rude. It can mean the difference between getting to safety or not.

Sometimes we need to rely on the kindness of strangers and sometimes we need to be wary of people. It's not foolproof, but teaching your children to listen to their inner voice and discern who they can trust will go a long way in boosting their confidence and in the end make for safer kids.