I got an email today from the principal of my kids' elementary school. Actually, the email went out to all the parents. It was a "stranger danger" email--advising (aka warning) parents about an "incident" after school today that involved a man who looked "like Santa Claus" giving a coin to a child and then getting in the passenger seat of a car and driving away. The parents and child were alarmed, and the administration felt we should all be aware of what had happened.
My reaction wasn't alarm. It was sadness that this is where we are: suspecting every kindness that comes our way, suspecting every kindness that comes our children's way, and having to base our every action on the assumption that people have ulterior motives for every good deed they do.
My mom has a picture of me eating ice cream while sitting on our kitchen counter. I'm two, and I'm looking straight at the camera, my face covered in chocolate. Standing next to me is a large man, and he's looking down at me, smiling, proud, as if I were his own child. His name was John, and he was a good friend of my father's. And my mother tells me John adored me and would spoil me with candy and ice cream and whatever else it took to keep my attention for a moment or two. I don't have any memories at all of this man, but judging by his expression in that photo, I'm sure he did adore me.
When I wasn't much older than I was in that photo, my mother headed out to do laundry with my grandmother, leaving me in my father's care. When she got home, I was gone. Panicked, she and my father began running around the house and yard to look for me, when there I appeared, walking hand in hand with a young man as we headed toward them. A pick-up truck followed close behind, crawling along slowly as I led the way home. I'd apparently wandered off and had ended up on a rickety old bridge, much like the bridge in the well-known painting of two children with an angel watching over them.
The young man explained to my parents that he and his father had tried to get me to climb into the cab of the truck so they could take me back to wherever I'd come from, but I'd refused. So the young man had no choice but to get out, take my hand, and help me find my way back.
When I was about seven, my family lived next to an elderly couple, the Harveys. I'd often go over to their house, and they'd give me ribbon candy and let me play with their yellow lab, Ginger. Mrs. Harvey died before Mr. Harvey did, and still I'd go visit, and still he'd have that bowl of ribbon candy ready for me.
I do my best to teach my kids about "stranger danger." But I don't want to teach them to be afraid. I want to teach them to be discerning, to follow their gut instinct, their heart, the Spirit--whatever you want to label that little voice telling you, "This is a bad one" or "This is a good one." I want them to be discerning in all things and in all relationships. My nine-year-old daughter trusts everyone. She loves all of her teachers. She loves all of the kids in her class. She doesn't see the bad in anyone, and sometimes she really, really should. But this is how she's always been; it's how she was born. I've had a lot of talks with her lately about the importance of understanding that just because someone likes you doesn't mean they're likable. I certainly don't want to teach her to hate or to go through life with a wall up around her, but I do want her to learn to make good choices in her friendships and to gain better judgment . . . and then use it well.
A customer used to come into my parents' bookstore years ago who took a liking to me that made my mother very uncomfortable. He was a minister--an older man though by no means elderly--and he'd wait to talk to me until my parents weren't around. He offered "private counseling sessions" if I ever felt I needed them, and he brought me lunch on occasion. I was quite happy at the time, doing just fine, and every time we spoke, he tried to make me believe I wasn't as happy as I thought I was. This wasn't about religion. He never brought up God or faith once. I was polite. I turned down all of those offers for private counseling sessions. And then he abruptly stopped coming in. I found out much later that my mother had told him to stay away from me and to stay out of their store. She told him she didn't trust him, and that if he ever came near me again, she'd sic my father after him.
I was 22.
As a mother of four and as a daughter of a very protective mother, I get wanting to protect your kids from all the baddies out there. And there are a lot of them. But we should no sooner be teaching our children to fear every stranger than we should be teaching them to trust every man with a gentle voice who offers private counseling.
Discernment. Everything else is just fear. A gift in its own right, but not what should guide us or them.
I got a follow-up email not too long after the initial one, by the way. The matter was resolved after the police department determined this wasn't a "stranger danger" situation after all. There are bad people out there, and I ache for every parent whose child has ever been a victim of one. But there are good people out there too, and maybe our kids need to be aware of them as well.