My 3-year-old daughter likes to talk to strange men.
She approaches them without any trepidation, outside of her preschool, at the park, at the grocery store, at ballet class. She’s fairly savvy when it comes to social interactions, so she’ll often start with a question designed to engage the man-of-the-moment in a conversation before launching into her own monologue:
“Hi! Is that your motorcycle? I like it! I have a baby doll! Do you want to see her? She had a headband, but I left it at school. We’re going to get it tomorrow. My little sister has the same baby. Grandma Dede gave it to me.”
“Hi! Are you putting that cereal there? I’m going to ballet class. That’s why I’m wearing a pink leotard and pink tights. I don’t get to put on my tutu until we get to ballet school. We’re getting chocolate bunny crackers for a special treat because today is the last day of ballet.”
“Hi! Is that your ball? It’s really cool. I can climb up the ladder over by the slide. I saw a bug by the swing and I didn’t like it so I told my Mommy and she made it go away. Do you have bugs at your house?”
I never know how to respond when my munchkin strikes up these conversations; on the one hand, I’m proud of how outgoing and engaging she is, but on the other hand, she’s talking to strange men. Thus far, they’ve always been kind to her, smiling and responding to her questions. I don’t want to end the conversation too abruptly; I worry about being rude to these poor men who were simply minding their own business before some precarious little blonde-haired chatterbox started blabbing away at them. But on the other hand, she’s talking to strange men.
I’m not sure exactly why I feel uncomfortable when this happens. I’m always nearby, so it’s not like they’re going to snatch her and run away. I know that most men are good and decent people, more likely to help a child than harm one. Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I always have worries, vague nebulous fears that have been ingrained in me from my earliest days, about kidnappers and pedophiles and boogeymen (but never boogeywomen, of course). These fears are only strengthened by recent news stories; even though I know they are anecdotal and the statistics tell me that my children are safer than ever, I can’t shake the images.
I don’t know what to tell my daughter. My husband insists that I shouldn’t tell her anything, that she’s too young to be fearful of the world. He says it’s our job to keep her safe, and as she gets older, we can explain more to her as it becomes necessary to do so. On the one hand, I agree. On other hand, I tell her that the world is a dangerous place all the time–she knows that a hot oven will burn her, that she could get hit by a car if she runs into the street. Why not warn her about this other potential danger? Wouldn’t she be safer if she didn’t talk to strangers?
Probably not. The possibility that anything bad will come of my daughter striking up a conversation with a strange man while I am two feet away is unlikely. Teaching her not to talk to strangers might make me feel better, as if I’m doing something useful to prevent any danger from happening to her, but it’s not going to actually keep her safer. Other than hazards such as choking, burns, and falls, the real dangers to her, to any of us, are so rare and so unpredictable that any attempt to actually keep her safe from them would probably involve keeping her in a bubble so small that she wouldn’t ever get to live her life. And even then, bubbles burst.
Furthermore, there is something fundamentally disturbing about telling my daughter that people are scary, that people are potentially dangerous. There is something uniquely unsettling, even terrifying, about that prospect, especially for my daughter, who is an inherently relational child. She has been lucky enough to spend the first years of her life in a relatively trauma-free world; the people in her life have generally been safe, consistent, and reliable, and if not loving, then at least kind. She’s only 3; I’m not ready to take that away from her.
So for now, I’m going to let her talk to strange men. I’m going to notice my heart quicken, and my anxiety will heighten just a bit. But it’s not about me. It’s about her, and what she needs, so I’ll stay close and watchful, but I’ll keep my mouth shut.