My husband and I want our children to know their city and neighborhood intimately. We want them to benefit from interactions with the people they share the world with, and we want their presence in the community to be a gift and a blessing to others.
So we don’t discourage our kids from talking to “strangers.” Like most parents, we have taught them never to go with a person they don’t know. But we also encourage and model safe and positive interactions, including making eye contact and greeting people, engaging in conversation, and helping those who need it.
We teach our kids how to recognize signs that someone is not safe to interact with: erratic behavior, inappropriate or aggressive language, invading personal space. And we empower them to decide what sort of interactions they’re comfortable with.
A few years ago, on a walk home from the bus stop, our family encountered a young man who, though possibly somewhat intoxicated, was friendly and respectful.
After saying hello, he put his fist out, at eye level for my then-4-year-old daughter, and asked for a pound. She looked down at his hand, gave him her (in)famous side eye, and said, “My knuckles are hurting.”
The man shrugged off the slight and tried again, this time with an open hand. “How about a high five?” he asked.
She looked at his hand, then her own, repeated the side eye, and replied, “I think my hand is hurting, too.”
The interaction ended with my daughter’s boundaries intact (and a good chuckle for the adults).
The reality is, our obsession with “stranger danger” is way out of proportion to its actual risk to our children. In our desire to keep our kids safe from strangers, we are helping to create a car-dominated culture that is quite unsafe. If we focus on creating a culture of connection, we will find that our communities are stronger and safer as a result.
Carla Saulter, aka Bus Chick, has been car-free since 2003. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.