A couple weeks ago, Andrew received an email from a female work associate of his. In the message, a terribly frightening situation was detailed in which the woman’s daughter was approached by a stranger while the chid was playing on the “ride on” cars in the front of a Wallmart. The man apparnetly tried to get the little girl to go out to his car with him to “see his puppy.” Luckily, the little girl’s nanny was close by, intervened, and the girl remained safe.
After reading about this–an occurrence in a mid-sized Montana town much like where we live– I took the opportunity to talk with my kids about what they should do if a stranger approaches them and tries to entice one of our kids to go somewhere with him or her. At the time, my kids were repeating the correct answers like little parrots.
Then, today happened.
I had all three children with me when I went to a little off the beaten path flower nursery where I knew one could get a heck of a deal on late season perennials. The woman who runs the place got out a few toys for my kids to play with–along with what I assumed was her ~ 8 or 9-year-old grandson. As I completed choosing my flowers and paying for them–I noticed Landon, our 3 1/2-year-old son, was missing. I thought he was just around the corner from where I was completing my transaction and, quite frankly, wasn’t terribly worried as there was no one else around that I knew of.
But as I prepared to load my flowers into the car, I still didn’t see him. I looked and called his name over and over–but still no Landon.
The woman from the nursery (ok, it’s really a couple of green houses beside a large garage/shop off to the side of a gravel road along the Gallatin River) said to me, “oh, they’re probably just off looking at the train in the train room.” Train room? What train room?
As I turned around to collect my other two, kids and go look for Landon, the woman also disappeared. Suddenly I was standing in a dirt parking lot with two of my three kids, nearby a river and a lot of thick trees…and I had no idea where to look.
“Mommy, I think the lady went that way,” Ellie offered, pointing to a non-discript pathway to the left of the garage/shop. I followed her suggestion, calling Landon’s name, becoming more frightened and confused. Suddenly a little wood cabin/house came into view through the trees, and a man was walking out the front door. He half smiled at me, and said, “they’re in there. You can go ahead on in if you like.” Finally, I heard Landon’s voice coming from inside the cabin.
Now, I was about to walk into some strangers’ home with my other two kids, trying to collect (and ensure the safety of) the third.
The home was one of those places with piles of…stuff…everywhere–with only a narrow path through the stacks of papers and clothes and toys and…I don’t even know what all. I followed the sound of Landon’s voice to a back bedroom, and there he was: playing with an electric train with a boy probably three times his own age, and the woman from the flower nursery.
And you want to know what was worse beyond my fear of the whole situation? My concern for social politeness! I was embarrassed to be walking through the home of these people I didn’t even know. I was too embarrassed to show the fear I felt inside–not wanting to offend them by assuming they could potentially be the child molesters or kidnappers that they…potentially could be. I let Landon play for another minute, and then made an excuse that we had to get going for Gabe’s nap. We politely said good bye and thank you, and returned to (the safety of) our car. I let politeness overrun my motherly instinct!
In all likelihood, the boy and what I think were his grandparents probably were just a few really nice, hospitable people that recognized a little boy who’d enjoy playing with a train set. But what if they weren’t? What if, in those three or four or five minutes that I couldn’t locate my son, the man that came out of the house had crammed my baby boy into the trunk of a car and driven off? What if?
This all resonates deeply with me because, when I was maybe a little older than Landon is now, my sister and I were approached by a strange man while we were playing on a playground–with our dad playing tennis on a nearby tennis court. The guy asked me if I wanted to follow him into some bushes where he would give me some candy. I started to follow. My sister grabbed my hand and ran.
How and when do you, as parents, talk to your kids about this stuff? And to what extent? Even before the conversation I had with them, prompted by my husband’s business colleague’s email, I’ve talked with my older two a little bit about never going somewhere with a stranger, etc. But today, those few conversations proved to be unfruitful thus far. So how far DO I TAKE IT? I hate the thought of raising children in fear of every single solitary unfamiliar person they meet. But, I hate worse the thought of one of my three children becoming the next Elizabeth Smart…or worse.
So, what’s a parent to do?