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The Perils of “Stranger Danger”

One of the first lessons many of us learn as children is “Don’t talk to strangers.” Not “don’t get into a car with strangers” or “don’t let strangers into your house,” but “don’t talk to strangers.”

As a parent of two young children, I’m sure I’ve said it myself without giving much thought to what I was actually asking of them. Do I really want them to heed that advice? Taken literally, not talking to a stranger means not saying “Hello” or “Happy Holidays.” It means not making eye contact or smiling, body language that could lead to a conversation. It’s the kind of advice that has led us to a place where two people standing in an elevator less than three feet apart will look everywhere but at each other.

We like to say it takes a village, but we’re scared to death of the villagers. And so we erect boundaries around our children and get incensed if people cross them. Scold someone else’s child at your own peril, and keep your unsolicited parenting advice to yourself. The message to our fellow citizens is clear: hands off my child.

Image by Leon He/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

It’s not like this everywhere. On a recent trip to Mexico, my family and I were picked up at the airport by a man and two women from a taxi company. As we started toward the car, one of the women wordlessly reached over and pulled my 10-month-old daughter, Jehnavi, out of my arms and into hers. She then continued walking to the car, reciting nursery rhymes to my daughter in Spanish as she went, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

On another trip, this time to India, my now one-year-old daughter was enraged at being kept in her stroller while my parents and I ate lunch at a hotel restaurant. Seeing that she wasn’t letting us eat, the host, a tall, handsome 20-something, walked over to the stroller and wheeled it to another part of the restaurant. It didn’t seem to occur to him that this might make us uncomfortable; as he disappeared from sight, we could hear him serenading Jehnavi in Punjabi.

In neither case did my daughter cry. Quite the opposite; she was delighted. Nor did I genuinely fear for her safety. And yet, I still felt a pang of panic. In the U.S., strangers don’t (usually) take your child without first asking your consent, and they most definitely don’t take your child out of your sight line. The breach in protocol was jarring.

Then something funny happened. My mama-bear instincts gave way to a profound sense of gratitude disproportionate to the help that I had received.

Because of culture or courtesy or duty, these strangers shared a tender moment with my child, something normally reserved for those closest to me. For a fleeting moment, they became part of my village. As much as for their help, I was grateful for that feeling of connectedness, rare in an era increasingly defined by feelings of profound isolation — and even rarer in the country I call home, with its culture that celebrates individual achievement more often than the collective good.

Image by Ian D. Keating/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Years ago, a friend of mine took a trip to the Caribbean island of Barbados. She had just boarded a packed city bus when she felt a tugging on her purse. Her fight response kicked into gear; clearly, she was being robbed. She tugged back hard, then saw that the “thief” was a woman in the seat right next to her. On the buses in Barbados, apparently, it is not uncommon for those seated to hold the bags of the people standing, thus relieving their load.

Of course, sometimes you really are being robbed, and some people actually are scary — though it’s worth mentioning that most crimes involving children are committed not by strangers but by people known to the family, and violent crime has plunged in the last few decades.

Teaching kids how to be careful and to exercise intuition when dealing with strangers is essential. But hanging a “no trespassing” sign around their necks only increases our, and their, sense of fear and isolation. Distance is not always safety. Indeed, the opposite might well be true. Americans are lonelier and more depressed than ever before. For the better part of a decade, suicide rates among young people have been steadily increasing. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to cherish every scrap of authentic human connection that comes our way.

So this year I resolve to be a little less cautious instead of more. Rather than bemoan my lack of a village, as I often do, I will take a long, hard look at the boundaries that I put up, and what those boundaries signal to the world. The rewards of letting people in — like watching a perfect stranger enchant my little one with Spanish nursery rhymes or serenade her in Punjabi — are too good to miss.

Image by Aikawa Ke/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

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