The Perils of "Stranger Danger"

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - 6:18am

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.

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.

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.


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Rikha Sharma Rani

is a freelance journalist and director at the Solutions Journalism Network. While earning her master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, she also served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of International Affairs.

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Thank you for this eloquent statement of sanity and humanity in a society where fear of the stranger is manipulated by some politicians and "journalists" for their own self-serving ends. As you say, "most crimes involving children are committed not by strangers but by people known to the family." It's also true that violence against people of every age is more likely to be committed by a family member, friend or acquaintance than by a stranger. In this political season especially — a season of unreason — let's remember that recovering our humanity requires recovering our sanity. Much depends on whether we can. Thank you for pointing the way...

I couldn't agree more, Parker, and I love how you put it: recovering our humanity requires recovering our sanity. The opposite, of course, is also true. Recovering our sanity requires recovering our humanity. There are so many, complex reasons for what some call "the epidemic of loneliness," many of them beyond our control (a work force that takes people away from their families and support systems, the digitization of relationships, the trend toward hypersensitive parenting in which every interaction might irreparably damage our kids, etc). But this seemingly small thing--embracing rather than rejecting the notion of my kids interacting with strangers--feels eminently doable. We'll see how well I do it!

Beautiful! I'm experiencing this first hand, as mum to two girls aged 9 and 11. We lived in Australia until they were 7 and 9 - and must have ingrained stranger danger in their minds without even giving it a second thought. Now they are very cautious around anyone they don't know - whereas my husband and I, having traveled and lived overseas extensively, welcome new people into our lives. Hopefully by leading by example, and 'letting people in' as you so beautifully put it, they will have more of this joy in their lives too.

Kylie Bevan

Isn't it funny how we can live one way ourselves and then instill in our kids something different, whether consciously or not? My older daughter is extremely risk-averse, which is completely opposite of how I live (or used to live) my life. I suspect it's because when she was younger I was always trying to protect her from falling, hitting her head, etc. There's this abundance of caution when you are the guardian of these perfect little humans. It's one thing for me to let my guard down around strangers, but feels "irresponsible" to do that when it involves my kids.

What a beautifully written article and very much of our time. I remember going with my five week old son to the Indian embassy to get our visas - struggling with baby, passports and forms a wonderfully kindly lady, who spoke no English, wordlessly gestured to me and promptly removed my wriggling child from my grasp so I could fill in the forms. I imagine this was partly to help me and partly so I'd stop delaying the queue!

One of the many things I love about India is the complete and utter absence of barriers when it comes to children. I was in Kashmir last year and Jehnavi was at that age where she wouldn't keep her socks or shoes on. It was pretty cold outside and I can't tell you how many complete strangers, men and women, came up to me to tell me to put socks on her. There was something about that, despite the fact that I literally couldn't keep her socks on, that I just loved. Children, like music, are a universal language. You don't need to speak the same language to just get it.

Inspiring article and insights. As your words point out, the sweetest acts of kindness are those that are unexpected, because for good or for bad, within the absence of social custom and etiquette lies "truth". Great reminder to trust a little more, blur the boundaries a little more, let the world in a little more--and to pass these values on to the next generation.

Thank you for this thoughtful article. It brings a smile to my face and reminds me of the days of my pregnancy with my first child when I feared the expression, "it takes a village to raise a child." I didn't want the village to raise my child- that is my job! But then here she came and, oh, how I needed my village. Many hands and hearts have helped me raise my children, and their lives are richer and more full of love as a result.

I once terrified a little girl - maybe four years old - by agreeing with her that the enormous full moon was beautiful. She had been trying to get her dad's attention, repeating "Daddy, look at the moon," over and over, but he was speaking to a friend and basically ignoring her. I couldn't bear it that her excitement and enthusiasm were getting no response, so I smiled at her and said, "It really is beautiful, isn't it?" She looked at me and just froze, then scooted around behind her dad's legs where she hid, and he gave me a very sharp look of annoyance. I realized I had crossed the "don't talk to strangers" line of acceptable behaviour, and I was very sad. I was about 50 at the time - that's a number of years ago, but the memory still makes me sad.

Along with the stranger danger is the coddling of children who are treated like invalids. With every childhood incident of scraped knees and hangnail, the child is taught that immediate attention must be paid to the even smallest infraction to the physical body. These poor children never learn resiliency and bravado. I fear that they will have no courage or stamina to carry them into their elder years.

This is so true. I can remember so many times when strangers in other countries reached out to me only because I was traveling with children and the wonderful experiences that then followed - for example, a wedding in Bali that we were invited to only because we trusted someone to watch our daughters. Even in America, there are places like Hawai'i where the community is strong. Children call all elders auntie or uncle and a child will walk up to me, a stranger, to ask for help with tying her shoe.