The words were written in black felt tip. Today we talked about the danger of strangers.
The whiteboard is my daughter’s nursery school’s mechanism for communicating with busy parents: scribbled brief notes about the children’s day for us to read at pick-up time. I see all kinds of snippets on this board: hectic days of laughing, chaotic children exploring every aspect of life, compressed into one scrawled sentence.
We looked at knights and dragons.
This morning the boys and girls learned about local foods.
We celebrated Aidan’s birthday today.
But today, there it was. Today we talked about the danger of strangers.
I saw it as I waited for Eilidh to struggle with her shoes, pull on her jacket and hoist her rucksack onto her shoulders. Fiercely independent at age three, she accepts no help with any of these tasks.
The danger of strangers. I don’t know how the nursery staff approached the conversation, but its impact was immediate. For weeks, the normally gregarious Eilidh became mute when addressed by people we did not know. It happened in lifts, in shop queues, as we made our slow, three-year-old-paced way down the street. She’d turn and burrow into my legs, her tiny body rigid, while I smiled and made small talk on her behalf. And when the person – the danger – was gone, she’d lift her head and say indignantly,“That person is a stranger! And I don’t talk to strangers!”
But I am not sure if I should agree. Stay away from people you don’t know? Is this what I should tell her and her younger sister? Perhaps it is the safest message. And yet…
Once I stood on Brooklyn Bridge, the sun warm on my arms as I regarded my then-boyfriend. Neither of us were sure how to get to the subway station we sought, but we were not worried. It was the middle of the day; we were young and having an adventure. We were in the Big Apple; we were Cosmopolitans and deli lunches; we were the New York City Library and the Metropolitan Museum. We were unassailable. But we were also lost.
From around the corner to our left bustled a wide black man, over-dressed in a thick black coat and trilby hat. He glanced our way, paused and strode over.
We smiled and asked for directions. The man kindly pointed towards the subway sign, and suddenly we were no longer lost.
Strangers are bad. Strangers are scary. Strangers will take you somewhere and do bad things to you.
But once, walking down a steep hill near my university, the woman in front of me lost her footing and hit her head on the pavement. I helped her up, walked her home, checked that someone would be with her at home. She did not run from me, even though I was a stranger. We recognized that in that moment, she needed me and I was glad to be needed.
A research study by the US Department of Justice reports 115 children abducted by strangers in one year. In forty per cent of those cases, the child was killed. These are terrifying statistics, the kind that make me want to gather up my children and never let them leave the house again. But in the same year, there were 58,200 abductions by friends and acquaintances, and 203,900 by family members. So is that what I should tell my daughter? That she should fear her grandmother, her father, the women who take care of her at nursery?
Or should I tell her just to be lucky? That whether or not she is ever attacked is entirely a matter of chance, and not really worth worrying about?
Perhaps I should tell her that as she grows, there will be people who think strangers cannot help themselves in the presence of women, and that she must dress modestly, go nowhere dangerous, always be accompanied by a man?
I want her to understand that only a tiny minority of people would ever wish her harm. But how to tell which ones? That’s what I can’t equip Eilidh with. I can’t teach her to tell the dangers from the merely strangers, because I cannot do it myself. The nodding, diffident man we meet in the street sometimes, who insists on giving her money despite my protests – what is he? Is he a kindly old man who doesn’t have grandchildren of his own, or doesn’t get to see them much, doesn’t feel needed, and hands out money to unknown children as a way of feeling connected?
Or is he a danger? If ever I let Eilidh out on her own, would he appear, chuckling and jingling the change in his pocket, and tempt her away somewhere terrible with sweeties and promises of puppies? Who are the good guys and who are the baddies? Why isn’t it simple to tell?
The National Crime Prevention Council says we should explain to our kids that no one can tell if strangers are nice or not nice just by looking at them and that they should be careful around all strangers. But that we should also show our kids which strangers are OK to trust, like police, teachers or firefighters. But aren’t some firefighters bad people too? A hat and a uniform don’t make you safe. None of these feel like good messages to give my curious, trusting child.
Recently I struggled round a department store cafe with Eilidh—exuberant and in constant motion—and her sister, trapped in her pram, fed up, wailing and thrashing to get out. I looked at the tray upon which our lunch rested, and then I looked over at the nearest table, at least twenty meters away. I calculated the best way to get us all over there, feeling like the man in the riddle who needed to transport a fox, chicken and a sack of corn across a river, I’d need to make two trips, leaving combinations of food and children at each point. Then the man behind me cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me. Would it help if I carried your tray?”
Tears of relief rose from my eyes. I smiled at the man – young, brown-haired, accompanied by a woman and their own small child. The woman grinned back in sympathy.
“It’s not easy, is it?” she said gently. At that moment I felt we were kin. They had seen my need and reached out to me, and my goodness I was grateful.
We can fear each other. Or we can trust. We can cut ourselves off from the world, building walls and changing the rules to keep people out. Or we can realize that most people are kind, and good, and just want a nice life exactly as we do. And we can open our arms and our hearts to each other.
In truth, the danger does not come from strangers. Danger comes from hate, fear, or a need to control. Danger comes from colossal egos that are easily bruised, and people who need to lash out to prove they are bigger, stronger, more powerful. Danger comes when we listen to hate-filled rhetoric and believe that our neighbors are our enemies, are different, are other than we are. Danger comes when we allow fear to be our governing emotion.
Strangers intersect with each other’s lives. Sometimes we need each other, and this is what I want to convey to Eilidh, and her sister too, when she is old enough to understand. So I know now what I will say.
“Sometimes the world is dangerous. Sometimes strangers hurt people. Sometimes people hurt people they know. Mostly, people are good to each other. Be kind to others, and they will probably be kind to you. But trust your instincts, and run fast and far away from anyone who is cruel.”
It’s the best I can do. I hope it is enough.
As well being a previous contributor to Mothers Always Write, Carolyn Lochhead has also been published in Hippocampus, Mamlode, The Magazine, Oh Comely magazine and two Scottish Book Trust anthologies. She has read her work on BBC Radio Scotland and won the inaugural University of Glasgow narrative nonfiction competition. Carolyn recently published an essay collection titled Three Toothbrushes And Other Essays on Motherhood, Mindfulness and Making Sense of it all.