Last week was my Mema's birthday and as per usual, Spencer, my mom, and I went to the cemetery to put flowers on her grave. Because Spencer had ballet lessons that evening, we were meeting my mom there afterwards. En route to the cemetery, we're sitting at a stoplight when I glance up at the rear view mirror to see that Spencer is waving at someone and then she started saying "Hi, my name is Spencer." I turn my head in that direction and see she is "conversing" with a middle aged Hispanic man in a construction van.
I really hate stereotyping and it's something I find completely unacceptable in others, but in that moment, I thought the very worst about this middle aged construction worker man in his van. Why was he trying to talk to my three year old daughter? Why was he motioning for her to roll down the window? Was he just being friendly to my overly gregarious daughter or was there something more sinister going on? I plastered a smile on my face and through clenched teeth told Spencer not to talk to the man because he was a stranger. (This has to be the longest stoplight in the history of the world) And that's when she said something that sent shivers down my spine: "He's not a stranger, Mama, his face looks too happy to be a stranger!"
Maybe it was one too many episodes of Dateline, but when she told me that I about had a heart attack. It was at this point the light changed and we drove off, only for this man to keeping driving beside us, all the while still waving to Spencer. This went on for the next mile! I'm pretty sure that's when my mom's uber-paranoiac voice entered my head and told me to keep driving straight, and not go towards my destination, until the van turned off the road we were on. (She's definitely seen one hundred Datelines too many) So that's what I did and a few minutes later he turned. Relief surged through my body.
I turned around and drove back towards the cemetery and I started replaying what had just happened. A small part of me told myself that I had completely overreacted and another, larger, part was saying you can never be too careful. I again tried to tell Spencer that we don't talk to strangers, only for her to keep telling me that "strangers aren't happy people and the man was such a happy person."
It can be difficult for a parent to admit they've made a serious parenting mistake. I don't have any problem admitting that my parental skills are lacking in the eat-all-the food-on-your-plate, no running inside, sharp 8pm bedtime, and no jumping off the sofa departments. It's easy to own up to those parental shortcomings because they're fairly insignificant in the big scheme of things. No parent wants to think they've done, or not done, something that could result in real, actual harm to their child. But in those few moments, I realized I had made one of those big huge mistakes and I needed to fix it, pronto. I completely dropped the ball on teaching Spencer about Stranger Danger.
When I was a child, my mom was so totally, completely over the top about me and strangers. On the extremely rare occasions that she'd let me out of her sight for more than a few seconds, she'd always make me repeat all of the Stranger Danger rules, plus a few of her own. (and by child, I mean from ages 3-12! Each year she'd add a few more.) These were rules like don't trust someone who tells you they're a police officer if they don't have on a uniform, never tell a stranger your name or where you live, don't get in or go near a stranger's car, if someone grabs you and tells you not to say a word- start screaming "Help! Stranger!" as loudly as you can, never take candy, money or gifts from a stranger, and if a stranger asks for your help to find their lost dog, tell them no and then find the closest person you can trust. And I was always reminded that these were people who looked very nice, like they could be trusted.
We had code words for any potential situation that might require me to trust someone who was a stranger to me, ie., if a person I didn't know tried to pick me up from school because there was an emergency- that person had to know the right code word. (This was in the day before schools had super strict rules about that.) Before we would go out shopping, she'd always remind me that if we got separated, I should immediately find someone who worked at the store and if I couldn't find an employee, look for a mother with kids.
Honestly, that's just the tip of the ice berg of my mom's safety rules. From the ages of three to five, I was very scared of any person I didn't know and would tell anyone who tried to talk to me that I couldn't because they were a stranger- even those at my church. After all, wasn't the danger in "nice" people? I frequently had bad dreams about being taken away from my parents and I was always very nervous when one of them wasn't with me. I guess the fact that I'm still here is some testament to her methodology, but at the time, it really bothered me.
Since I was never in a situation where I actually had to use any of the rules, aside from the two years of telling everyone they were a stranger, I don't know whether or not I would have in a situation that necessitated it. I have a sneaking suspicion that I would done what she'd taught me if I felt threatened or afraid, but not if I hadn't. After I started kindergarten, I realized that none of my friends had all of these rules and I started to think my mom was wrong. She saw danger lurking on every corner, and as I got older, I saw the opposite. I "yes Mom"ed everything she'd tell me, but I thought she was just being crazy over protective.
Somewhere along the line I decided that when the time came, I would do things differently when I had children. All of those rules had just scared me and given me nightmares and I wasn't going to do that to my kid. It's not that I haven't told Spencer about strangers, she knows she's not supposed to talk to them, I just haven't made it a real emphasis. Part of that is because I thought she was too young to really understand what it meant and part of it was that I didn't want her to be nervous and fearful the way I was, only to do a complete flop and become trusting of everyone. I wanted to be able to teach her in a way that she'd always have a healthy respect for strangers.
But this whole experience has taught me a lesson and it's that I can't be too careful where Spencer's safety is concerned. I can't worry about her not being wary of strangers when she's seven because I made her too afraid of them when she was three. Not that I now plan on making her overly fearful of strangers, but I can't let the possibility of that happening then, stop me from making sure she knows what to do to stay safe, now. And one of the first lessons were doing is that a person can look happy, and have a happy face, but they are still a stranger.
I'd really love to know some of the different ways you all have taught your younger children about stranger safety. Any ideas or suggestions for me?