17 April 2008

Stranger Danger

This morning, the twins and I walked down to the car as we always do. They held my hands as we went down the stairs and crossed the street to the lot where our car is parked. Once we made it to the (small) parking lot, I release their hands and let them run over to "MaddieRiley car" on their own.

As we went through our routine today, there was a guy walking down the street, nicely dressed. I assume he was headed to work. He looked like he was about my age. As he ambled along, he watched us cross the street and watched the kids as they ran over to the car, squealing with glee. He had a smile on his face.

I would do the same thing, if I were that guy. It's fun to see kids get joy out of simple things like running over to their car, and it's especially fun to see that joy on a sunny, warm(-ish) spring morning. The guy looked perfectly harmless. He might be a parent himself. He probably lives in the neighborhood, although I'd never seen him before.

I hate the fact that he made me feel suspicious. I hate the fact that I wanted to pick Maddie and Riley up and get them in the car as fast as I could, away from his gaze. I hate that there are forces in this world that put me on the defensive around strangers—especially men, if I'm being honest. I want to be able to trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt, but media hype and parental paranoia make that difficult.

It's part of my job as a parent to protect Maddie and Riley and keep them safe. At the age of not-quite-two, I find my role and responsibility in the area of safety to be pretty clear: the kids are too young to make decisions about what is safe and what it not. I make those decisions and I teach them as we go along. Things will get infinitely more complicated as the kids get older and start making more and more decisions about who they talk to, who their friends are, etc.

I think all parents struggle with that balance between parental control and a child's independence. Something about that stranger this morning brought it into focus for me. Parenting toddlers is not easy, but I know there different and difficult things about parenting older kids, too. I can already see how hard it will be to not want to control every aspect of M&R's life, to let them make their own choices, and to respect what they want to do even if it's not what I would do. Obviously, safety comes first and there are discussions and negotiations involved in those choices. But I can see how letting go and letting your kids grow up is hard.

I didn't expect to be thinking about this so early. And, quite frankly, I didn't expect that seeing Maddie and Riley's growing independence would be so hard. As a single parent of twins, each bit of independence they gain is a huge help to me logistically. But their emotional independence is more bittersweet.

15 comments:

Amy said...

I think you should listen to your instincts. I don't know that you'd have that same reaction in a similar situation, I think your alarm bells were going off. Trust your instincts. Better to be wrong than sorry

sappho said...

i was going to say exactly the same thing as amy. trust your instincts. they're usually not wrong - and as amy says, even if they are - better to be safe. don't let your mind second-guess your gut feelings.

moo said...

Once, not too long ago, my husband and I were eating dinner in a pub with our son. I was making him shriek in hysterical glee by asking 'where's mama?' over and over again.

A grizzled old biker man at the bar, during a pause in our laughter, called out, "do it again, mama!"

I looked over, startled. There were very few people there. He gestured to us and said, "there is nothing better in this world than the sound of a child's laughter."

I would never in a million years have expected THIS GUY to have said something like that.

So yes, trust your instincts ... and trust too that sometimes, strangers can enjoy our children from afar.

Karen said...

I would have to wonder if parents feel that way about me. I am childless, but a stroller never passes me without me smiling at the baby/child. I love to watch children and listen to the hysterical things they say. I am the type of person to be hanging with the kids, playing at parties instead of sitting with the adults.

I just know in my heart of hearts that I am too selfish and independent to have one of my own....so I enjoy others kids.

I never even considered it was creepy.

Jan said...

Have you read The Gift of Fear? I have the companion book, Protecting The Gift, and I can't recommend it enough. (The author, BTW, would tell you to trust your instincts, too, but he might teach you something about being able to tell the difference between your instincts about a particular person and the overall worry we've had instilled in us about the child predator.)

I have a 2 and a 3 year old and I'm already using some of the things I learned. And I'm teaching some of it to my kids. My daughter knows my cell phone number and that if she gets separated from me she is to find a "mommy with kids" and say, "will you help me find my mommy? I know her phone number". Some time soon I'm going to approach an appropriate-looking stranger and ask her to let me help the Munchkin practice.

Seriously, read the book. It's awesome.

Karen O said...

Oh I really grappled with this one. As the victim of a mugging in my early 20s, my stranger danger antennae were always on high alert with my daughter and son (not twins.)

I tried REALLY hard not to project my fears on to them and I think I did pretty well, but as teenagers, they wanted to be involved in a project in the same neighborhood where my mugging took place and I just couldn't let them. We talked about my reasons for not letting them participate and although they didn't like the decision (REALLY didn't like the decision), it was OK (eventually.)

Like most things in parenting (and life, for that matter,) making safe decisions comes down to communication, balance and and love while paying a lot of attention to your gut.

And my kids - now in their 30s, have traveled the world and achieved several degrees each. They're fairly street smart and have the good sense not to tell me about the things they do that would make me crazy!

Goddess in Progress said...

So hard to strike a balance. There's part of me that really thinks a lot of parents over-protect their kids, and I want my kids to have some freedom to play in the neighborhood and ride their bikes when they get older.

And then I get a piece of mail from the police this week, telling me a level 3 sex offender has moved in down the street. Can you say holy crap? Mama bear instincts pop right up, and we will no longer take walks on that end of the street.

Hard to find the line between safety and caution and awareness, without being excessively paranoid. I've got a little time to think since my kids aren't even mobile yet, but that bit of mail was a big splash of cold water in the face...

Andria said...

Always trust your gut instinct. I wish I would have, the night that I was assaulted. You can never be too safe.

A said...

With you on seeing the difficulty ahead as the kids grow. There is danger now, and different dangers as they become more independent. I went to a really good talk last night about cybersafety and tween age kids, which made the point that we need to let them learn and explore and make mistakes, but also watch and talk with them so that they have help and support and guidance.

Jen said...

Totally, totally second the rec for The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift (the latter is specifically aimed at parents/caretakers--stupid of the author and publisher to have the gift in one book be fear, and the gift in another be your child! but I digress). I own Protecting the Gift and I would be happy to lend it to you. It is not an exaggeration to say that these books changed my life. They are SO SO helpful. I agree with the previous commenter who said if you had the "danger" thought pop into your head, it was probably for a reason. You have a mental list of the people in the neighborhood, and as you noted, he wasn't on it. So who knows. Better safe than sorry.

Love to you all,
Woburn Jen (who has to find a better moniker)

Annagrace said...

I think my friend Angie says it best: the point is to raise kids who are completely, to the best of your abilities safe, while they feel, 24/7, that they completely are. In other words, being vigilant and awake ALL the time, but having them grow up believing that there is very little to worry about or be afraid of. This is my challenge, too--and as someone who grew up unprotected from someone who should have actually BEEN the protector, I know the stats say that the worst threat, if there is one, is usually a family member/friend/someone in the home--but I would never forgive myself I fell asleep on the job...

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Fear can be natural and healthy, but it is also very fed by the sensationalism we are exposed to in this culture. Fear sells. Fear is fed by our prejudices and biases. In reality, stranger abduction is about as likely as getting hit by lightning - we spend waaay to much time worrying about it, at a price, and statistically at least, your kids have much more to fear from people they know. I'd trust my "gut" more if I didn't think that my "gut" had been rather compromised by exposure to non-reality-based fear-mongering and racism much of my life. I do understand your feelings, and you have my sincere sympathy there because I struggle with it too, but I get a little frustrated when fear always seems to be met with various versions of, "yes, be afraid, it's what makes you a good parent" instead of a little reassurance that chances are, you're perfectly safe around strangers. You CAN be too safe, and fear itself does not make you a good parent - having a grasp on reality and making sensible choices does. Living in a sealed box and denying both yourself and your kids the chance to interact with other people would indeed be too safe (not that you're going to do that, reasonable, smart woman that you are!) The book "Last Child In the Woods" has some wonderful writing about fear vs. reality. I know it's hard, and probably harder for you than for me...

BlackenedBoy said...

As terrible as it might be to say, you're absolutely right to see the situation the way you do.

The media is sensationalist and ridiculous, making it appear as if children are being abducted off every street corner in America by fixating on it so morbidly, but as a parent you can't give anyone the benefit of the doubt.

Someone once said, "The most dangerous place in the world is between a child and its mother."

That's true, and there's a reason for it.

By the way, your children have very nice names.

Julia said...

I think this makes sense, especially for you, since you must feel outnumbered. If you have to protect both, but they are running in opposite directions, what do you do? This is very visceral and understandable, and not at all strange to have occurred to you on a morning when it was just you, the man you've never seen, and two free-roaming toddlers on that street. I guess it's just another dimension of the min.d.f.uck that is your life.

Chris said...

I'm reading your blog now and this comment is ever so late, but I have to say--I trust that kind of feeling. I was out today in our very nice neighborhood, spring day at a frozen yogurt store and as I pulled in saw a man approaching an older couple--it registered just in the back of my mind, but enough that when I left and I saw him approaching me alarms went off in my head and I locked my doors. Maybe it was fine. But, I was alone, and I believe in being cautious when I'm alone and I'd think you have to be more so with your children there. I don't normally feel this way when I see people and am out in my neighborhood so I'm going with erring on the side of caution. Afterall, it's called "survival instinct" for a reason, right?