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Strangers: Secretly Trustworthy

By Sierra Black |

In a world where, “Don’t talk to strangers” is often trotted out as rule #1 for keeping kids’ safe, offering to watch a stranger’s child for even a few minutes is a radical act. Rachel Federman shares her experience doing just that on Free Range Kids today.

Rachel found herself at a playground recently where her toddler was playing with two other small boys. The other kids mom was trying to round them up to run home for a few minutes and move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. They were resisting, as children at playgrounds will.

Then Rachel did something wild: she offered to watch the other woman’s kids. They didn’t know each other. And still don’t. But for a few minutes she stood guard over their safety at the playground while their mom did her laundry.

I’ve done this myself. It’s appalling how unusual it is, and how transgressive it feels. Why don’t moms help each other out like this all the time?

Last summer, my older daughter met a little girl at a park near our house that she fell completely in little girl love with. She adored this child so much that she persuaded me to trade phone numbers with her dad. For a few weeks, we’d meet up at playgrounds around the area and the kids would play.

On our second playground playdate, the girls needed to pee. A woman sunbathing at the park offered to let them use her bathroom, at her house across the street. This woman was a total stranger; I’d never seen her before and she didn’t offer her name. She didn’t have a kid with her; she was alone with her towel and bronzing cream, enjoying the afternoon sun.

I took her up on it, and found myself crossing the street to go into A Stranger’s house with not only my kids but this little girl I didn’t know. The kids peed, and the woman gave them all snacks. I didn’t say, “Don’t take candy from strangers.” I said, “Thank you.”

I wish there were a lot more interactions like this. Little moments when people assume that they belong to the same community and can offer each other small help with their kids.

In fact most of us are not criminals. While the nightly news is full of abduction horror stories, the number of kids taken by strangers each year is less than the number hit by lightning. Our kids have a lot more to fear from those closest to them than they do from random helpful Strangers.

Have you ever taken responsibility for a stranger’s child? Would you let someone you didn’t know watch your kids for a few minutes?

Photo: el clinto

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About Sierra Black

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Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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26 thoughts on “Strangers: Secretly Trustworthy

  1. Heather says:

    if we would all use our common sense and trust our judgment, the world might just be a safer and happier place. There is really very little to fear from another mother, and if there is, you can usually tell pretty quickly.

  2. Snarky Mama says:

    I have told my mother-in-law that she can NOT tell my children not to talk to strangers. To me, the entire premise of “Stranger Danger” is so hostile and anti-human. Most people are nice people.

    I want my children to respect all of their fellow creatures, people included. I do not want my children to feel that chatting with a stranger is dangerous; I do not want them to grow-up mistrusting the world.

    Of course, I am sure to let them know that while TALKING to a stranger is fine, they should never, ever GO anywhere with a stranger (even if they seem nice, or even if they say they have some puppies or ice cream or whatever).

    Additionally, I constantly tell my children if someone DOES ask them to go somewhere with them, they should tell me immediately. If they don’t see me (maybe I’m across the playground or something), they should find a mom with kids and tell HER about the stranger.

  3. Kristine says:

    Its crazy how paranoid people have gotten, we all fear everyone standing next to us is some crazy when really they are just enjoying the park the same as you. I likely would let someone watch my kids, say if we were at the park and I had to use the washroom and they were playing with someone elses kids I would ask, then offer the same favor to them. I was recently at an airport and looked out for a kid, somewhat secretly (they didn’t ask me but I wasn’t staring at him like a stalker), but just kept an eye out because mom was out getting food and dad was running after the toddler. Was I afraid someone would do something, no, but the kid was sitting near me and he was quite content so I just kept an eye on him to make sure eveything was ok.

  4. anon says:

    that’s great…I agree…but please do teach your children not to overstay their welcome when talking to other moms…it seems that children are always coming over to me and my younger child wanting to bend my ear while their mom is doing who knows what…sometimes they even physically put themselves between my own child and me, which really gets on my nerves…please teach your children appropriate manners and appropriate limits of physical space…some really get right up in my face…it’s rude

  5. jenny tries too hard says:

    I totally agree with Snarky Mama. Stranger Danger may do more harm than good sometimes. I remember hearing about a little boy, around 7 or 8, who got lost while camping with his parents. He ended up near another family with kids but wouldn’t approach them to ask for help, and actually hid from them. If he’d been told to approach strangers when lost, and given good common-sense rules about how to interact with strangers, he could’ve saved his parents and the total strangers who were recruited to look for him hours of worry.

  6. Snarky Mama says:

    anon, as a responsible, kind adult, if a child was “right up in [your] face” and honestly being that “rude” you, why wouldn’t you (kindly) ask the child to leave you alone?

    If you were responding to my comment about finding a mom to tell about the stranger, I feel you are missing my point. To clarify, while I am normally attentive to my children, if for some reason a stranger asked them to go somewhere with them and if my children didn’t immediately see me, at that point they should approach a mom with a child and alert her to the stranger.

    I would hope any thinking person would recognize that my child is looking for a “safe place” to get away from the stranger. I would also think that any parent would be grateful to learn that there is a creepy stranger nearby.

  7. anon says:

    not at all, if a child is in trouble or whatnot, of course they can come to me, and if I child is overly persistent in interjecting themselves in play with my child and I, after I have asked my child if she wants to play with this other child, and they still try to grab all of my attention, I do tell them kindly that I need to focus on my own child and she is younger and not ready to always play with older children…my point is that so many older children seem NOT to have the problem of talking to strangers, but instead are overly gregarious, persistent and bothersome and have not been taught about limits

  8. Citizen Mom says:

    The sad truth is that most children who are harmed are harmed by someone they know, not a stranger.

  9. jenny tries too hard says:

    anon…they’re kids; they’re still learning and practicing limits. Social skills are complicated, and it takes longer than three or five or even ten years sometimes to totally grasp social cues. It takes even longer to learn if mom or dad swoops in and tells the kid each time they verge into annoyance. Then, the kid learns “mom and dad tell me when to leave Ms. Gretchen alone” rather than “First Ms. Gretchen stopped making eye contact…then she asked her kid whether I was a bother…ooooohhhh….”

    I know, I know…YOUR kid never does that because you taught her (or him?) not to…but *sigh* when you venture into public parks, you sometimes find yourself part of the social skills lessons for other people’s imperfect children…

  10. anon says:

    yes, yes, yes…all the freaking time and believe me, I do my part and do it very well, to the extent that I see parents on the sidelines smiling…still, they need to sometimes step in and be part of the interaction to get a read on what’s going on and possibly step in and say something…my kid is my primary responsibility and I will never make her feel second place to someone else…don’t pile on or get on my case, just take responsibility for your own child(ren)…my kid doesn’t do it because my kid is too young, but when my kid DOES get to that stage, you can bet I will have one eye on her and will step in and TEACH when she is being a pest…

  11. Uly says:

    Anon, I know you hear this often, but you’re about to hear it again: Don’t assume you know everything about everything when you don’t. It’s very, very easy to talk big when your kid is little. MY kid won’t be a picky eater. MY kid will do what they’re told, when they’re told. MY kid will have the best, most perfect manners everywhere. And maybe you’re right… but maybe you’re not. When your child has successfully passed through the “Obnoxious and gets in everybody’s face” stage, and the “Massive attitude at all times” stage (pre-teen version), and the “You’re not the boss of me!” stage, as well as the terrible twos, threes, and fours – then you can talk. Until then, I suggest you not say anything that might embarrass you later. At some point, your kid is going to be the one other people point at and whisper about, and then you’ll know: The only people who blame you are the ones who don’t know a thing yet. Save yourself the shame of eating your words and shut up now. (And maybe you’ll pass through your kid’s childhood without any such incidents. In which case, bravo, and don’t brag please.)

  12. Rachel says:

    Comments Sierra, thanks so much for posting this. I’m thrilled that there is a movement toward more freedom and openness. Getting rid of the idea that everyone we meet is a possible predator, out to get us (or worse, our kids). I often feel there is this oppressive air of distrust that just hangs over the playgrounds. People don’t make eye contact, keep their kids far from other kids. I’ve been blogging about these issues as well. Overprotectiveness and the whole breakdown of community, a crazy, alienating emphasis on the nuclear unit above all else.

  13. Voice of Reason says:

    I agree with the general tone of the above posters; relentless ‘stranger danger’ messages aren’t exactly helping to build the village in which so many of us claim to want to raise our children.

    My issue is with regard to the word ‘stranger’. Many younger children don’t really understand what it means and often no one provides a definition so, when asked what a stranger is, their responses include descriptions of black-wearing, masked, movie-like villains.

    In our family e have discussions about strangers, what they are and how we interact with them: What does a stranger look like? Are all strangers bad? Am I a stranger to anyone? Are you a stranger to anyone?

    I like to tell my kids it is okay to talk to people they don’t know – we want to contribute to a friendly culture – but they should never go anywhere alone with them. Being with us when and if we go somewhere with a new person allows them to witness, and slowly develop an understanding about, how they gradually will learn to trust their own instincts.

  14. LindaLou says:

    I don’t believe in Stanger Danger AT ALL. In fact, I want my kids to talk to as many normal strangers as possible and in my presence so that they’ll be able to know that feeling you get deep inside when someone just isn’t right. Nurture the gift, people.

    And GP, I do sort of get what you’re saying. I’ve always felt that way when I’ve taken my kids on outings in the summer and the huge groups of daycare kids show up and no one is really supervising them properly or interacting with them, so they attach themselves to you. I’ve had to tell kids every single summer that I’m here to watch my own kids and spend time with my own kids, and no, you cannot share our snack/drink/sports equipment. I’ve been experiencing this for the 13 years I’ve been a parent and it does get annoying.

  15. bob says:

    There was a mythical time when even male strangers might be trusted.

  16. Baltimore Mom says:

    I was lying awake last night unable to sleep and started to think about this thread. I think the reality is that it’s easy for some people to say that we should trust strangers and give people the benefit of the doubt. But not everyone lives someplace safe.
    The playground I take my kids to is also a sleeping haven for homeless people because there is a covered area that is somewhat sheltered from sun and rain. Most of them are harmless, but there is one man that you cannot engage or acknowledge in any way because he becomes intrusive, and another woman who is mentally ill and has been known to be violent. There are drug dealers in the neighborhood who you don’t want to make eye contact with, and in other parts of the city, there are teen gang members who will chat you up and try to learn personal information, such as where you live and when you’ll be home so they can figure out the best time to rob your house.
    I’m not saying that everyone is a potential criminal or that your kid shouldn’t say hello to someone. And when the old ladies in church give my kids lollipops, I let them take them. I let them eat them. I’m just saying that in some parts of the country, trust does not come easily.

    I’ve also found that when someone creeps me out, I don’t need to say a word to my kids, they have their own instincts that seem to be working just fine.

  17. Amy says:

    I’m with you anon. The other day at the pool I was trying to teach my daughter to float and a little girl kept talking to us. It would have been one thing if we’d been doing nothing, but I wanted my daughter’s attention. I don’t expect a 6yo to grasp that we were otherwise engaged, but parents do need to teach their children boundaries. Children learn social skills by learning when to talk to people, learning when NOT to talk to people, learning which people are OK to talk to.

  18. BostonMama says:

    I’m trying to undue some unsubtle daycare teaching about strangers. My 3 year old frequently tells me now “I see a stranger, we don’t talk to strangers, right Mom”. I always respond that we don’t “go with strangers, or take treats from strangers” but, that seems too subtle for a 3 year old. Yesterday, he told me “I see a builder, builders are not strangers”. So, now apparently he believes anyone whose profession he can recognize is not a stranger… this is a hard lesson to teach.

  19. anon says:

    yes, and since it is a hard lesson, maybe it should wait til a more appropriate age…why are people always trying to rush little ones toward socialization? there is plenty of time for that…I think it is appropriate that a 3 YO is wary of talking to others…this sort of adjustment is more in line with what would be good for a 5 or 6 year old

  20. Baltimore Mom says:

    Last year at a softball game, my son went running off with a friend of his and the friend’s father, who he had never met. And I knew the man’s name, but was more friendly with his wife. When they came back, I told my son that he is not allowed to go someplace with someone he doesn’t know, especially without telling me first! And he said, “He’s not a stranger, I told him my name is Brendan!” I agree with Boston Mama that teaching who is and who is not a stranger is sometimes a dificult task.

  21. Alicia says:

    I always seem to unofficially look after the other kids that are around where my son is playing. One time, at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, my son was playing in their play area when I saw a little boy run off. I alerted his parents and they caught him. And a few weeks ago I was at a mall playground with some friends when I saw a little girl run out of the play area. I kept an eye on her because I didn’t know who her parent was, and when no one went to get her, I went and led her back to the play area. Another instance was when my husband was with us at a playground, and a boy fell off his skateboard and broke his arm. His older brother was there, but we and the other parents immediately rushed to help the boy. My husband had First Aid training and kept an eye on the boy to keep him from going into shock. We stayed until his parents arrived and took him to the hospital.

    I think it’s important for all parents to keep an eye out for other kids, even if they don’t know them. It does instill a sense of community since we are all in this parenting thing together.

  22. LogicalMama says:

    I’ve seen moms in predicaments and thought about offering to help but always felt like they’d be totally taken off guard so I never did.

    As far as not talking to strangers, interestingly enough, my son (5 at the time) and I were riding the BART train and when we got off at our destination, we were $.50 short of the fare. As I was fumbling around to get my ATM card out for the small amount, a man offered me up $.50. I kindly accepted it as it was ridiculous to put $.50 on my ATM, thanked him and we went our way and he went his. As we walked away, my son commented about me talking to a stranger. I told him that not all strangers are bad people. In fact, we are strangers to many people, does that make us bad? No, and we would help someone that needed our assistance also.

  23. Maggie says:

    The two kids I know who were actually molested were hurt by people they knew well … people their parents trusted … people who weren’t what any of us thought they were.
    One time in the 1970s at a large auto show my three-year-old slipped his hand out of mine and ducked under the legs of the crowd behind me. I turned to reach for him and he was just plain gone. It took nearly five minutes to get to the booth where the microphone was, so that I could put a ‘lost child’ announcement on the loudspeaker. Almost at once I saw my son, happily sitting on the shoulder of a stranger — one of the men on duty at an exhibit — who, a father himself, had patiently calmed the child’s fears until he heard where to look for us.
    There are many red flags in that little story, but the truth is the show was so crowded I should probably have been carrying the child on my own shoulder. Asking him to walk through the crowd holding the man’s hand would have been asking for him to get lost a second time. And if he’d had to stay where he was there would have been messengers and all sorts of nonsense (in the era before cellphones, no way to communicate across the convention center).
    Another time, at the end of the last century, a little girl sat across the aisle from me on the train. For a long time she stared out the window, the picture of boredom, but then she began to cry. After a few minutes I asked what was the matter and she said she missed her mommy. We established that her mommy was the woman I had seen get up and leave the car earlier. I said I thought probably mommy had just had to wait longer in line at the canteen than she expected, and that I thought she would be back, but the child continued to cry. I reached across the aisle and asked if she would feel better holding my hand and she said she would. And that’s how her mommy found us, almost half an hour later when she finally got back with food for them both, our hands stretched across the aisle except when another passenger wanted to pass. I would have felt awkward offering my lap, and would have expected the parent to object if either of us changed seats, but the hand-holding seemed the right thing to both mother and child.
    In today’s climate, though, I wonder what I would do now?

  24. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Babble Australia and Dara Furlow, Sierra Black. Sierra Black said: Strangers: Secretly Trustworthy | Strollerderby http://bit.ly/cLucIJ [...]

  25. LindaLou says:

    Comments

  26. Rachel says:

    Maggie–that’s such a sweet story about holding her hand. It is terrible that we might think twice about something like that now. It’s so hard to know how people are going to react. For that little girl’s sake I’m so glad you were there.

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