Stranger Danger

Teaching kids not to talk to strangers but to be polite is a tricky balance.
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Teaching kids not to talk to strangers but to be polite is a tricky balance.

I maneuvered our enormous BJs cart up to the self-checkout line with my preschooler strolling idly along behind me, a great big bag of Hershey's kisses in her chunky hands. In front of us a woman was hurriedly scanning her items while her two kids wrestled in the double seat of her cart. They were straddling that very fine line between having a fantastic old time and clawing each other's eyes out. It was unclear if they were going to erupt into a fit of giggles or into a volcanic explosion of teeth and nails and spit.

One look at Ellie and the tide officially turned. The little girl stared at her with a bright smile on her face. "Hi!" I looked down at my little booger, who stared back at the girl blankly.

"Hi!" the girl said, with much more force this time. A nervous smile spread across Ellie's mouth, a defense mechanism passed down by yours truly, and she scooted behind my butt, shifting the chocolate to one hip while clutching my leg for dear life.

"Ellie!" I laughed down at her, terrified that her lack of response was going to swing this little girl into major meltdown mode. "The little girl said hi. Say hello to her!"

"I like those chocolates," the girl said, stretching her neck to get a better look at the silver bag.

"They're yummy, aren't they?" I asked, making forced small talk with a child while I tried to extract my daughter from the folds of my coat. "Ellie!" I said in exasperation. "The little girl is talking to you."

She looked up at me with a smile and said very softly, her voice a jumble of confusion and fear cut with certainty. "But momma, I don't know her!"

I looked down at that sweet little face and knew she was so right. Here I am, standing on line concerned about a five year old thinking my kid is rude, while my preschooler is having an internal struggle about talking to strangers.

From the time they're old enough to make conversation and toddle along through stores beside us, we drill our kids not to talk to strangers. There are books and videos and who knows what else devoted to teaching the seriousness of the subject. We tell them over and over that this is of extreme importance, stopping just short of telling them our fears of horrific people and the terrible things they might be capable of.

We don't want to give them nightmares, but we want them to be leery. We want them to be social, but we don't want them wandering off with anyone who offers a smile. We don't want them to be rude, but we don't want them to talk to just anyone either. No wonder they're confused.

When we're walking through the grocery store and an old man walks up and asks me how much he can buy her for (which they always do), I laugh, however awkwardly. And when he says hello to her, I scold her for not being polite and returning a little volley of chatter. I roll my eyes and shake my head in that way that implies Kids! Those fickle little things! while feeling a little bit embarrassed that she isn't being more polite.

Yet she's listening to me. She's not engaging with what I've taught her is the enemy. She's not being rude. She's being safe. And instead of validating her, I'm allowing myself to get washed up in the potential dismay of a five year old stranger.

I smiled down into my girl's big blue eyes and gave her a nod. "I don't know her either!" I said, as if I just realized it. She giggled a little and hugged my leg tightly before helping me put our things on the belt and moving on with our day.

JENNIFER GARRY is a writer and the mom of two girls who talk as much and laugh as loud as she does (just ask her husband). She writes about motherhood with humor and brutal honesty on her personal blog, Cuddles and Chaos. Read all of Jennifer's posts.