I share a special bond with children and babies. I don’t know what it is, per se, but babies and children have always loved me. Maybe they see a certain vulnerability or tenderness in me that they feel sympatico with. Nine times out of 10, you give me a crying baby, I can quiet him or her down. I’m good at rocking babies to sleep, I’m good at making toddlers feel relaxed and chill. I can distract a baby on a plane and get them to stop fussing with a perfectly executed game of peek-a-boo. Just last week I was walking out of the nearby bagel store and I almost stepped over a year old baby who took it upon herself to just give up in the middle of the sidewalk, squatting there on the corner feeling so sorry for herself dangerously near traffic, so I told her, “It’s not that bad, baby. Wait until you grow up and have to start paying your own bills. Then you’ll really have something to cry about.” Because she clearly was a very wise baby, she took what I said to heart, ambled back up and decided she could once again face the world. Her mom said thank you, I said no problem, and we went our separate ways. I sauntered off with a bounce in my step, thinking, “Another job well done, Baby Whisperer!”
So I ask you, mothers (and fathers) of the world: stop thinking that every stranger who takes a shine to your adorable child is some creepy perv or weirdo. We’re not all lonely psychos who are salivating over your child’s flesh. In fact, 99% of us aren’t. Most of us are mothers or fathers or caregivers or teachers or just generally friendly people who like kids. Give us a break?
I understand that the fear culture we live in has made us all paranoid that something terrible is going to happen at any moment, but what I have learned through my own life experience is that we often trust and mistrust the wrong people. For example, I’m sure you’re aware that most acts of abuse (of any kind) against children happen at the hands of a family member, a close family friend or a “trusted” figure (think the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church). Therefore it follows that a friendly stranger who is walking by and who smiles or says hello to your child is *not* going to try to kidnap or harm them. (For the record, kidnappings are very rare and when they do happen, just like with instances of abuse, children are usually abducted by someone they know, even a parent.) As Lenore Skenazy is constantly preaching, teaching “stranger danger” is actually a horrible idea that can backfire if/when your child needs help! So instead of fearing someone who by all accounts seems safe, why not engage with that person assuming they have the best of intentions? Say hello. If you are worried that someone talking to your child might be strange, saying hello to them is going to be much more effective in determining that than giving them the side-eye.
I mention the side-eye specifically because the other day I was getting cash at an ATM attached to a pizza place. A little girl who was there eating with her family peeked her head out the door to engage with me … because I am a baby magnet. I just exude fun, what can I say? I smiled, and she waved, so I waved back and said “Hello!” in a very chipper voice. I didn’t approach her or squat down to her level, I simply acknowledged that she waved at me. Suddenly I noticed her mother look at me with this panicked glance, and so I said to the little girl, “You better go back inside.” What I didn’t understand about the encounter was why a mother would scowl at a stranger, and yet not call her child back in to be with her family. I was the one who told her to go back in, concerned about her safety, and yet I was viewed as the dangerous party? Hmm. Makes no sense to me.
A friend of mine told me recently, “I love babies so much, I’d ask to hold every baby I see if I didn’t think people would think I was weird.” I told her that I had successfully held a few babies that I’d just randomly come across in a coffee shop or at the park, but only certain types of people will allow you that. They’re usually caregivers or low-to-middle income moms who take a more relaxed approach to child-rearing than the frenzied, wealthy helicopter parent. It’s kind of funny, because we all send our children off to school at some point to spend the day with virtual strangers, and some of us send our children to daycare when they’re infants, and yet there is a pervasive fear among some parents that a person who is standing right next to them, under their supervision, could do something unthinkable to their child.
Take it from me: if a nice girl who looks like a mom (or who clearly is with her own child) starts talking to or smiling at your kid, relax. Often times children are able to “snap out” of a crying jag or bad behavior when a stranger addresses the issue, so take the assist and be happy about it. Furthermore – I’m sure there are plenty of guys out there who love and relate to kids who would thrill to be more open about that, but they’re afraid that even saying hello to a child will get them carted off to jail. I know the feeling. Once when I was traveling, I stopped at a rest area and sat down on a bench. As soon as I perched there, a 1-year-old toddler came bounding over to me and LAID HER HEAD DIRECTLY IN MY LAP. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, and I was so touched by her warm and sweet gesture, but any feeling of comfort I derived from her innocent move was immediately tempered by the fact that I was like, “OMG everyone needs to know that I did not shove this baby’s head into my crotch!” I almost put my hands up in the air as if I was being held at gunpoint just to let everyone who might have been looking know, “I didn’t do it!” Thankfully I just kept my cool, smiled and laughed about it until her mom caught up with her, and we had a quick chat along the lines of, “Aren’t kids adorable and ridiculous?” To be fair, that baby had the right idea: my thighs look just like pillows. And I’m a baby magnet! She couldn’t help herself.