Stranger danger

A few months ago, I saw a baby named Gracie for a nine-month well-child check. Long gone was that sleepy little pooping and suckling machine that I’d known the first couple of months of her life. Now she was a smiling, babbling, beguiling little bundle of charm.  I picked her up and marched her around the clinic for everyone to admire, and she soon had us all under her spell.

Fast-forward to last week, when Gracie returned for her one-year exam. As soon as I walked in the door she started crying, and she never stopped. When I tried to examine her, she clambered back into her mother’s arms as if I were the Grim Reaper.

I didn’t take it personally; that’s just how 1-year-olds are. Their brains are doing what they’re supposed to do, right on schedule. Around 12 months, they acquire a little switch with a big red warning sign: Beware of Strangers.

Humans aren’t the only ones with this switch. It’s hard-wired into the brains of every social animal from wolves to monkeys to orca whales. It’s the invisible glue that keeps our packs together and safe, because it draws the line between “us” and “them.”

Human beings are all built with the same basic blueprint — so why is it so easy to tell them apart? It’s because specific areas of our brains are devoted entirely to remembering faces — up to 10,000 at a time. We evolved facial recognition as the first encoded password. Are you friend? Family? Or a marauding band of Neanderthals come to steal our shelter and food? There was a time when our survival depended on knowing the difference.

Unfortunately, like many of our hard-wired behaviors, this one is less adaptive now that spotting strangers is no longer a matter of life and death. But the switch is still there, and it flips on all the time. 

Our sense of “us” has many benefits. Our comfort with familiar people creates the joy and power of our families and our communities. It makes us who we are. But even as our sense of “us” sustains our love, our sense of “them” stokes our fears. 

Our primal fear of “them” is the root cause of racism and discrimination. It’s what allows politicians to manipulate us and divide us against each other. It starts wars, and it incites genocide. If humankind ever manages to destroy itself, we will meet our end pointing at one another, screaming: “THEM!”

So what does this mean for our own lives, and especially for our kids? What can we do to help them taste the sweetness of “us” without gagging on the poison of “them”? It’s tricky, because for children, strangers carry more risk than they do for adults. We want to control who our kids talk to, who they take candy from, and what car they’ll get into when they’re offered a ride. Every culture has its Boogey Man story, designed specifically to scare the bejesus out of kids so they won’t trust strangers. As parents, should we retell these stories and teach our children to fear? Or should we discard them and expose our children to harm?

The answer lies in balance. Yes, we want them to be careful around strangers, and we should teach them the specific circumstances where wariness is justified. But we can also show them that the unfamiliar shouldn’t always be feared. Sometimes they can embrace it, and even make it familiar.

When I was growing up, there were some kids who were just different. We all made fun of them, because deep down their differences made us afraid. Looking back, I can clearly see that Karen probably had Asperger’s, and Michael was probably transgender, and Mo almost certainly had ADHD.  All of them must have suffered terribly from the constant taunting and ridicule. I wonder now, what could have stopped me from participating in all that cruelty?  I think having one real conversation with any of them might have done it.

Here’s the thing about switches: if you can turn them on, you can usually turn them off. Simple familiarity transforms a “them” into an “us.” And once they’re an “us,” they’re likely to stay that way.  In 1998, 60 percent of Americans were opposed to gay marriage, a figure that had been fairly stable for decades. Then Will and Grace started showing up on people’s TV sets, soon joined by Ellen and Rosie.  Millions and millions of Americans started hanging out with openly gay people (albeit tiny, televised ones) on a weekly basis. Now, opposition to gay marriage is at 35 percent and dropping fast.  “Them” turned into “us.”

We spend a lot of time and energy teaching our kids whom they should fear. Maybe we can also teach them whom they shouldn’t. Bring people who are different into their lives — through books, films, travel, church, school, sports — and especially friends. Make sure they know that there’s a whole world of humanity outside our safe little caves, and that only a few are the Boogey Man. 

The rest are just “us.”

Jeff Lee keeps the cave fire burning in Seattle.