I was reading an online parenting forum the other day, where people were discussing what age they allow their children to go to the park by themselves and several things struck out to me. Some of the women on that particular forum were recommending checking the sexual offenders lists as though a predetermined list could tell them whether it is safe or not for their children to be out and about, or who to warn their kids against. I think such lists are useless and cruel as many young men are classified as sexual offenders for statutory rape and are no danger whatsoever to park-going children.
Other mothers on the forum were suggesting that their children would be able to tell who the weirdos are and stay away from them. I wondered, would children really know? How would they judge who is dangerous or not? I’m an adult, and I have trouble with that at times. I worry that children (and adults) would judge people just on social skills or visible mental illness and that those aren’t necessarily the best ways of judging. There are socially awkward people who are not dangerous, and on the other hand there are plenty of people who are very smooth and friendly who wouldn’t necessarily be safe. I would rather teach my children about situations that are dangerous than to encourage them to classify people as dangerous or not.
I know that saying “don’t talk to strangers” doesn’t work either, and I know this partly because of an experience I had once when I was living in Montreal. I took my children regularly to an outdoor swimming pool and often when we were there a young girl would approach me and coo over my baby. She was there with a summer day camp program, and she was lonely, so we’d visit. About the fourth time we met up there one of the day camp workers finally noticed she was talking to me and said to her that she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. Her response? “This isn’t a stranger, she’s a friend.” The daycamp worker never inquired as to whether I was a friend of the girl’s mother (an approved friend) but just left us visiting. Obviously I had no intention of taking the child, but it made me smile and laugh to see how the child interpreted the “don’t talk to strangers” instructions.
I want my children to know that it is okay for them to approach strangers and ask them for help when they need, because I figure it is safer for them to approach those they want than to wait and see who approaches them. If strangers approach them I want them to talk politely but maintain proper boundaries. I also want my children to understand how to set limits, and that they can say no to people – any people, whether friends or strangers when they feel uncomfortable.
More than fear of strangers approaching my children, I fear a world where we all fear one another. More than that, I fear that we judge people on superficial means deciding who is “safe” or not by how well people fit into our preconceived notions. I worry about the excluding of people who are different in some ways, and I’m thinking right now particularly about some people I know who suffer various forms of mental illness and social awkwardness, and find themselves shunned because of it. Children, the adults around them and the adults they will grow into, are too inclined to act as though those “weirdos” are dangerous, when they’re not.
I want to write about finding ways to accept those who are different into community and acknowledging that it is hard sometimes. There’s times when people don’t recognize social cues and they talk too much or stand too close. There’s times when I’ve felt uncomfortable for a moment or two as someone’s asked personal questions, yet they are humans and they need to be included, with appropriate personal boundaries set where necessary.
I was pleased when I found a library book the other day that I could use in talking with my children about accepting strangers. Edward the “Crazy Man” tells about a boy noticing a homeless person who dresses in hilarious costumes. The boy becomes a man and eventually meets up with Edward again, giving him a job as the crazy man he still is. The book identifies the man as suffering from schizophrenia and at no point is he really cured. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in homelessness and poverty, as well as mental illness. The pictures are cute, maybe a little over-the-top at times but childish and happy. The last page of the book invites children to send their own pictures of costumes to the author, care of the publisher.
Edward the “Crazy Man” is another book published by Annick Press Ltd. For a long time I never noticed which publishing companies published which books, but I have started to notice Annick Press Ltd because their books really stand out as being relevant and creative.
How do you encourage your children to interact with others? How do you keep them safe? Do you have experiences with strangers that stick out in your mind?
(Updated to add: attempting to accept those with differences became an issue for me at a different time. You can read more about this topic here.)