A viral social experiment ignited questions about the safety of young children. The video depicts a man successfully luring four-year-olds away from their parents with the promise of puppies. When the parents were interviewed, most responded that their kids would never talk to or leave with someone they didn’t know, even though most of the children did just that. Cautioning children about the dangers of talking to strangers didn’t make them any less likely to fall for the clichéd ruse.
Many people regarded the video as a warning that we need to better educate our children on the dangers of talking to strangers, but I argue it is just the opposite.
I was raised in the post-Ted Bundy era, a stone’s throw away from The Green River Killer, and by parents who were experiencing a generational hangover from the freedom and experimentation of the 1970s. The world was a scary place to my parents. The news during their teenage years was filled with horrific tales of serial killers and kidnapped children. It was the true death of the American neighborhood.
I was told to say no to drugs, to approach all panel vans with the utmost caution, and to never, ever, under any circumstances talk to strangers.
Around every corner lurked a child-abductor waiting to whisk me away my untimely demise. My parents were terrified by my natural instinct as a toddler to assert my autonomy by bombing as fast as I could away from them in the shopping mall. Losing sight of me for even a second was a living nightmare from which they couldn’t wake until my hand was once again safely clamped in my mother’s vice grip and I had been suitably chastised for my foolishness.
Trust no one was my childhood mantra and it has stayed with me into adulthood. I still feel my chest tightening with a rush of adrenaline as my fight or flight instinct arises every time a stranger approaches me.
I now have three small children of my own, and my oldest is going through a friendly phase, which is to say that he has absolutely no boundaries. He loves rushing up to strangers and asking them their names, touching their hands while they converse, and sometimes hugging them as he says goodbye.
Whenever I spot him in the distance, engaged in conversation with someone I don’t know I am instantly transported into my mother’s heaving body as she screams my name outside of Nordstrom. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I am convinced he is in danger: that the little old lady is really a kidnapper in disguise luring him to her lair with promises of candy and puppies. My palms begin to sweat.
I want to run to him as fast I my feet will carry me and rescue him from the certain danger he is facing from the 92-year-old woman with the hearing aids and the service dog.
I want to pull him to me and berate him for straying so far ahead.
I want to force him to promise he will never, ever talk to strangers.
I want to scare him so he’ll listen.
But I don’t.
I’m saddened by my own inability to recognize the good in people around me. I hate that my first thought whenever someone speaks to me is “what do they want from me?” I believe that when I hold the world at bay through my own fears and misanthropy, I am treated in kind: my own miserable expectations being mirrored back at me.
I don’t want that for my children.
I look at my son, who is so full of innocent joy, trust, and naïve love for everyone he meets, and I feel protective: of his body, but also of his kind nature. He is four years old and shouldn’t be burdened with the fears and overcompensation of a generation and a time he knows nothing about.
I’m not suggesting I’d let my four-year-old wander the streets of New York City alone because he’s in more danger at home than on the subway, but I do try and allow him to greet the world with uncorrupted enthusiasm. When he hugs the UPS man I smile through my gritted teeth. When he tells strangers on the street his name, I laugh and tell him how proud I am of him for being so polite, even though my heart is racing. I force myself to hang back a few steps and let him talk to the man fishing beside the lake near our house, just for a while by himself, knowing I’m nearby but that I trust both of them enough to take my time catching up.
There are real dangers in the world for small children: busy streets, sharp knives, hot stoves, and deep water. Any one of these things is about a million times more likely to hurt him than the man with the fishing pole beside the lake near our house. Research has shown that only about one-hundredth of one percent of child abductions occur at the hands of a stranger. It is more likely that my son will be struck by lightning while talking to the fisherman in our neighborhood than to be kidnapped by him.
I see danger in each face he greets with his warm smile, but he doesn’t have to.
I am awed by the kindness and openness with which most people respond to my son. To him, the world is not a series of life-threatening pitfalls to be avoided, but a place of wonder and possibility that is filled with new and interesting faces. I believe there will be less hate and judgment from future generations if we start teaching our children not to fear what they don’t understand, but to approach it with warmth and a desire to learn.
This is why I face my fears every day and let my children talk to strangers.
*This post originally appeared on The Washington Post