Panic First, Think Later: What Are We Teaching Our Kids About Strangers?

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We live in a fairly affluent suburb of Indianapolis.  It’s clean, the schools are good, the neighborhoods are nice.  It’s your typical suburban town, really.  And like much of suburbia, it doesn’t take much for fear to burst our proverbial bubble.

We started and ended the summer with two very different news stories that became all-consuming for parents.  In one story the danger came from outside, in another the danger was parenting itself.  One involves people preying on kids while they play, the other involves leaving children unattended in cars.  I’ll discuss the kids in cars issue in another post, but today I’d like to examine kids and strangers in more depth.

My older daughter attends public school, so we automatically are forwarded any emails or press releases from the local police department that involve school-age children.  Near the end of the school year, my inbox saw several press releases concerning incidents of local children being approached by men they did not know.  The incidents were fairly similar, though the suspects were not.  Kids are playing in their front yards, stranger approaches children by car or on foot.  Stranger attempts to communicate with children, children run inside and report incident to parents.  Parents notify police.

It didn’t take long for fear to spread through our little community.  I heard from many parents that they weren’t letting their children play outside without direct adult supervision any longer.  The father of a daughter the same age as Elena walked her over one afternoon, and asked me to walk her home, because of “all the creeps out there.” They live 2 houses away, and we can see their house from our back door.

I’ll admit that by the 3rd press release in less than 2 weeks, a part of me was feeling panicked, too.  All the occurrances happened in neighborhoods just like mine, not far from mine.  I let my kids play outside without direct supervision all the time.  We’ve given Elena a tremendous amount of freedom in our neighborhood, both because we trust her and we feel it’s important to her development.  And still, as much as I knew how things can get blown out of proportion, for the first time I found myself wondering if it was really okay to parent the way we do.

Mike and I talked and we decided not to change our rules, but to have a discussion with the kids about the events and review what they should do in situations involving strangers.  The goal wasn’t to scare them, but to remind them to be aware of their surroundings.

And then, a very different press release came through.  One which detailed that one of the incidents wasn’t really an incident at all.  In this particular police report, a gentlemen in a jeep with a dog approached 9- and 10-year old siblings, asking if they want to pet his dog.  The children immediately went inside and reported the incident to their mother.  From the press release:

Investigators spoke with neighbors, family members and the driver.  Information obtained during these interviews confirmed that, at the time of this incident, the driver had no criminal intent.  The driver told investigators that he was only being friendly and did not realize the possible negative perception of his actions.

Now, I know there are many of you who will still call foul.  You’re suspicious of him anyway, and maybe think he pulled a fast one.  And maybe that’s true.

But I also have to sympathize with him.  Because for every creep out there, and I don’t deny there are  terrible people out there who prey on children, there are many more men who can be trusted with our children.  They can walk down the sidewalk and let kids pet their dog without wanting to molest them.  They can say hi and wave, or have a conversation over a fence and not intend to kidnap our kids and hide them in the basement.  They can be caring teachers, coaches or mentors.

Did the kids do the right thing?  Absolutely.  I would never encourage my kids not to remove themselves from a situation that felt uncomfortable to them, or not to share it with me.  Is the guy a little naive?  Yes.  Right or wrong, he has to realize that people are automatically going to assume the worst when it comes to men and children.  But before we jump to conclusions and involve the police, is it too much to ask to do a little thinking on our own?  I know my kids, and if they saw someone with a big dog in a jeep they would point and make a big deal out of it.  They love dogs.  Maybe the guy is a dad himself, or has grandkids, and knows this as well.  Maybe he’s just being nice, sees the kids’ interest in the dog, and tries to be friendly.  Before we jump to conclusions, can we talk to our neighbors?  Can we talk to him?  Can we observe before making snap judgements?

Yes, we have to be smart.  We have to have honest conversations with our kids about not only strangers, but people we know that may want to do them harm.  We have to pay attention.  But we do not have to live in fear and paranoia, painting every male we see with the broad brush of potential predator.  If we teach our kids they can’t trust anyone, they will never develop the intuition they need to tell them when someone really does have bad intentions.

Let’s all take a deep breath and take the time to evaluate what’s going on around us.  Let’s rely on common sense first, before we lose the ability to use common sense altogether.