Strangers Teach My Kids Lessons in Paranoia
If you have children, the chances are some total stranger is watching them. I know strangers are watching my kids. A family of three walked up to my girls at the grocery store just days ago, after I had stepped away to retrieve a shopping cart. As I returned, I heard this family asking the kids, “Where is your mommy?”
“I’m right here,” I said as I approached. They continued questioning my girls, so I said it louder. “I’m right here. I’m right here!” By this time, I was barking at them in a tone meant to convey, “Stop interfering and let me handle it.”
“We were worried,” the husband started to explain. But he caught my tone and, walking away, turned back to shout, “Bitch! Leaving your kids alone ….”
I don’t think my daughters heard him, but I know that his wife and school-age daughter did.
Please understand this. I was several paces away from my girls, who are two and three-and-a-half years old. They were in a glass-enclosed entryway where I could see them at all times. Because I knew they were capable of standing still without me for a minute or so, I told them to stay there while I grabbed the cart. Short of tethering them to my body, I could not have guaranteed them greater safety.
Americans have gone crazy with this idea that a mad abuser is lurking at every public place waiting to scoop up little children. We have heard too many news stories about mall abductions, seen too many pretty faces on milk cartons. We have anguished over Lifetime television. Vigilante-like, when we spot a cute kid, our thoughts run to whether she is safe.
I know, because this sort of thing happens to me all the time, and I am always right there to witness it. Strangely enough, Mom’s presence is not a deterrent.
One time I was sitting on a bench at the mall, and my girls were playing about 20 feet away. We were indulging in some down time after shopping. Within a few minutes, a middle-aged couple descended the escalator and asked my girls where their mother was.
For some reason, these people didn’t bother to do the logical thing and glance around for me first. They would have spotted a woman who looks a lot like those little girls, watching them intently. Nor did they hear me the first few times I said, “I’m right here.” I had to stand up and wave my arms. OK, so maybe I didn’t have to wave so largely. I was getting angry and wanted to dramatize how ridiculous their “concern” was.
After all that, they seemed to expect me to thank them for some reason. I did, but like the grocery store incident, the annoyance in my voice was unmistakable. I knew at that moment that strangers’ solicitations were sitting badly with me, but I couldn’t yet put my finger on why.
Another time, another mall, I was walking four or five paces ahead of my two-year-old. She can be stubborn, and she didn’t want to walk with me. She wanted to gaze into every window and contemplate the floor crevices. My husband calls this behavior “micro-Charlotte.”
So, I walked ahead, trying to appear nonchalant, giving Charlotte the space she needed to feel independent. Two women heading the other way stopped her and asked, “Where’s your mom?” They lifted their eyes and saw me. Then they scolded Charlotte, saying she should stay with me. Thanks for the freelance parenting advice, ladies, I thought, but we could all do without it. I rolled my eyes. They trotted off, looking pleased with themselves.
I would prefer, if someone is really concerned about my child, that they just watch a minute and see whether the kid is with someone – someone they hadn’t noticed yet. That’s what I do when I see “lost” children. It’s not intrusive, and it gets the job done.
Instead, these hyper-vigilantes are sending insidious messages to my children. First, I haven’t heard one of them ask where Dad is. Message: Women are the ones responsible for children. That subject requires a rant all its own.
Moreover, they are telling my children indirectly that the world is a frightening place. My kids don’t have to listen to their parents’ opinions, watch the nightly news or – God forbid – interpret the world for themselves. The vigilantes are happy to convey their morbid worldview in a quick few seconds of “concern.”
It reminds me of the time my dad was visiting me in Southern California, where I was working as a newspaper reporter. We went into a gift shop, and the shopkeeper began a diatribe about the “Vietnamese gangs” supposedly terrorizing parts of the county. Being involved in the news business, I knew that his fears were exaggerated. I wondered if he was a racist.
I couldn’t wait to get away from the shopkeeper, but as we left, my father said, “You are lucky to have someone fill you in like that.” I just rolled my eyes. I feel like I have been doing that a lot. Spreading paranoia – especially racist paranoia — is not a public service.
A final message the vigilantes send my children is that Mommy is doing something wrong. I am somehow neglecting them by letting go their hand, these people seem to say. Quick, call Children’s Services! You can’t be too careful with the wretched parents lurking around these days – another morbid view. Don’t trust strangers. Don’t trust Mom. Don’t trust.
To the contrary, I believe that I am giving them a little space and independence and responsibility. Sure, I know they can’t handle a lot at their young ages. But step-by-step is how you get there. It’s how you teach girls, then young women, to take care of themselves. Eventually, they learn that they can trust themselves.
Is it stretching too much to believe that my girls will hold the vigilantes’ unreasonable fears in the back of their minds into adulthood? Will they learn to navigate public places safely, intelligently and confidently? Or, when they are women, will the bogeymen of rape and abduction hold them captive inside small lives?
The federal Office of Juvenile Justice estimates that nearly 1.4 million children go missing each year. That figure includes children who were abducted, abandoned or ran away. Less than 1 percent were kidnapped by strangers.
Now, I’m not about to play the odds with my children. I’m not going to leave them at a park or playground or mall figuring that 99 percent of the time, no stranger will appear to snatch them. I’m going to take reasonable precautions.
By reasonable, I do not mean that I am going to rope the girls to my torso or purchase those silly kiddie harnesses and keep my hand firmly on the leash. Back off, folks. Give a mother a chance to teach her children about the world – and include some positive lessons about knowing what’s safe and whom to trust.