A certain amount of fear is a good thing. It’s adaptive. If we didn’t have a healthy fear of things like bears, snakes or cliffs, our evolutionary history would have been cut short a long time ago. But, at what point is fear maladaptive?
Through exaggerated media reports and the rapid dispersal of news, the North American culture has developed a sense of fear that is out of proportion with reality. Even the remotest chance of death, injury, discomfort or even inconvenience has led us to put stricter and stricter limits on ourselves and our children. How about this one:
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
Who started this campaign?
While a certain amount of caution around suspicious figures following a child in a van and handing out candy is well-warranted, generally adults can be trusted. Statistics show that the vast majority (3/4 according to data cited in this article) of abductions are done by someone the child already knows. At this point, the “stranger” caution becomes moot.
It occurs to me that generations of people who grew up with this rule have extended this fear (or at least discomfort) into adulthood. Do you talk to strangers? Do you walk around avoiding eye contact, or do you pass strangers with a friendly smile and a “good morning?” It can take a lot of extra effort, but I think it’s worth it. As people isolate themselves even further with their headphones and smartphones, for many this would be a significant cultural shift. What would the world be like if everyone DID talk to strangers? I’d wager that it would be a much friendlier, more helpful, more tolerant place.
So, what is the correct level of caution for a child? Clearly it is unwise for children to go around chatting with every adult they see. But, there are situations where a child will be lost or in trouble and must rely on strangers for help. Strangers may be police, doctors, teachers, storekeepers or firefighters. There was one case, where a lost boy scout ran away from rescuers because he was afraid of being kidnapped.
I remember being quite small and in a store with my Dad. He was around the corner and out of sight, and I was entirely convinced that two men I saw talking quietly were plotting to kidnap me. It sounds quite ridiculous now, but I wonder how my active little imagination came to that conclusion.
That said, other recommendations make a lot more sense. For example: “don’t accept gifts from strangers,” “never get in a car with a stranger,” “adults should not be asking children for help,” or “you may speak to strangers if you are with a safe adult.”
It takes a village to raise a child, and I don’t want my children to grow up afraid of their village. I want them to see it as a place full of diverse and interesting people, and that a stranger is just a friend they haven’t met yet. A general sense of fear and distrust of the unknown does not make for a positive sense of place in the community. Also, it is a great idea for children to form a large network of adults that they know and trust in their neighbourhoods. We have many neighbours and family members that my son knows he can trust for anything, including school pick-ups and emergencies. These are his “safe adults.”
Where I live, we have a “Say Hi” campaign, which is working towards making a safer, more welcoming, friendly community. Isn’t it absurd that we actually need something like that? But we do.