Thursday, February 11, 2010

I'm not big on stranger danger - but what do my kids need to know?

Karen Dukess’ article on True/Slant about a school that gave a presentation for kids on how to escape from car trunks reminded me of just how far behind the curve I am when it comes to the vigilance level of a typical American parent.

Two years ago, I discovered my then 5-year-old didn’t even know what the word “stranger” meant. Literally. She and her friend Paige were playing with teddy bears in the back seat of the car as I drove. Paige’s bear said to Holly’s bear, “I can’t talk to you! You’re a stranger!” Holly’s bear pretended to cry, saying, “I’m not strange! You hurt my feelings!” “Stranger isn’t a bad thing,” said Paige, so puzzled by Holly’s response that she forgot to maintain her teddy bear voice. “It just means someone you don’t know.”

Oops. I forgot to teach Holly that one. And if she doesn’t know from strangers, you can probably guess that we also haven’t done the stranger-danger lesson.

My reasoning is that we live in a small town surrounded by kindly people with whom I’m acquainted even if my kids don’t always recognize them. Though I don’t mean to sound naïve and I do understand that even the most kindly and familiar faces can harbor sociopathic tendencies, my point is that my kids are much better off assuming that the people around them are to be liked and trusted. My greatest concern regarding how child safety is communicated is the kids who have learned so categorically not to trust strangers that they are afraid to ask an adult for help, whether it’s because they have lost their mom in the supermarket or are hanging helplessly from the monkey bars at the playground and need a lift down.

When I was in my twenties and not yet a parent, I went out to lunch with my cousin and her two little girls. We were seated out on the restaurant patio. When someone at our table needed extra sugar, my cousin instructed her 6-year-old daughter to go inside and ask our waiter for some packets. As the little girl headed inside, my cousin explained to me her philosophy that it was more important for her daughters to move confidently through the world able to ask for what they needed than to fear strangers. The lesson has stuck with me.

So instead of teaching my children to avoid strangers, I employ a secure-the-perimeter mentality, essentially teaching them that the most important thing to know about staying safe is never to leave the premises – whether the premises are defined as the supermarket, the playground, the library, or church coffee hour – with anyone they don’t have permission to leave with. Though I understand it’s still possible for a child to be groped or flashed in the aisles of a store or behind a tree at the playground, this won’t have catastrophic consequences. So I’ve boiled the message down to its simplest essence: As long as they don’t leave wherever I am, the worst will not happen.

What I wonder about more than whether my children could open a car trunk from the inside – as grim a thought as that is – is simply how resourceful they are in more of a big-picture way, how well they could solve problems. For example, I wonder what would happen if, say, our house had a carbon monoxide leak and my 7-year-old woke up one morning to find the rest of us unconscious. (This is hypothetical; in reality we have a carbon monoxide detector.) Would she call 911? Would she go find a neighbor? If the latter, would she put on shoes and a coat first?

I’m sure there are sensible ways to role-play scenarios such as this, just as some parents role-play abduction games with their children. Of course, I’ve never been one of those parents, and so I can’t quite stomach the thought of asking Holly to imagine waking up and finding the rest of us unconscious. But it probably makes as much sense as showing her how to get out of a locked car trunk.

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