When I was in first grade I spent an afternoon in the school office, just chatting with the secretary. I wasn’t there for a rule infraction. I was there because it was the day my class was learning about the dangers of talking to strangers, and my mom knew that she didn’t need to worry about me talking to strangers. What she needed to worry about was me getting so scared by stories of what could happen at the hand of a stranger that I’d have trouble sleeping, and have nightmares. So she sent me to school with a note requesting that I be excused from the classroom talk.
I thought of this the other day when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. One of the rental houses on the next street over is usually occupied by short-term visitors, and usually it’s a couple. The house is tiny, has just one bedroom. So I was surprised to see a young child out on a scooter in the driveway. “Hi,” I was about to say when I saw her. I made a note to mention to my young neighbors (who also have scooters) that she was there. If I’d spoken to her I might have mentioned it to her too.
But you aren’t really supposed to talk to kids you don’t know. It’s not a rule for adults the way Don’t talk to strangers is a rule for kids, but it’s sort of understood. Because you know that kids are taught not to talk to strangers, it’s sort of a courtesy to not put them in a position to have to do the not talking to. It’s weird, and seems unfriendly, but in the context of the talking to strangers rule, it’s kinder to not talk to kids if you are, to them, a stranger.
For me this is such a bummer. I like talking to kids. I find them more open and aware and awake than many adults (including me). But I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, or worry them, or worry their parents if their parents are nearby. I could have said hi to the kid with the scooter in the driveway, because that’s about as much as it’s OK to say to a kid you don’t know, but I didn’t. I was too busy regretting that it has to be this way. And wondering about the impact it has on a person’s experience of the world.
The intent of the Don’t talk to strangers bit is obvious and good. We put it in place in hopes of preventing strangers with ill intentions from bonding with children such that they can then more easily victimize them in some way. The problem is that as a result, many children get the message that strangers are dangerous, which mostly, we aren’t. Some strangers are dangerous. Some are in fact extremely dangerous. Most strangers, though, are not dangerous at all. Don’t talk to strangers makes no allowance for this, and kids are left thinking that it’s the strangerness that’s dangerous. It’s not the strangerness that’s dangerous. It’s just that some people are dangerous. And of course we know that it doesn’t take being a stranger to be dangerous.
It seems so much harder to try to communicate with kids about the nuances of things than to just make a decision for them and then try not to worry about the side effects. It’s much harder to say something like “There are some people who could hurt you, and so we need to talk about how to decide whether or not it’s OK to talk with someone you don’t know or to do something that an adult tells you is OK even if you do know them” than to say “Don’t talk to strangers.” Like many things we do with and ostensibly for kids, I think it’s born mostly of tiredness and overextension. We don’t have time or energy to get into all that nuance and the questions that kids will have.
When I was a child, I was very good about giving the silent treatment to anyone I didn’t know. Now I’m an adult, and I pretty much still don’t talk to people I don’t know. I know intellectually that most of the people I pass on the street are not harboring ill intentions toward me or anyone, young or old, nearby. But I still relate to them, as a group, as though they probably are. Not everyone grows up feeling this way, and I don’t lay the blame for this condition in myself solely on the admonition that I not speak with strangers. But I know it had an impact. I know it set a tone for the way I experience the people who are new to me. If that’s true for me, I bet it’s true for others too. And if it is, if many of us are scooting around shaping our worlds around even the remnants of a belief that mostly people are dangerous, I think it might be worth rethinking the stranger rhetoric.