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It's windy outside and I watch a child of about 10 stumble on the public walk in front of our house. His hoodie covers his face; his head is bent over the puppy he is carrying. The dog is balled in his arms, paws thrust upward.
"I'll bet that puppy is a third of the size of the kid," I think. "He must be heavy. Is he hurt?"
I am ready to run outside and catch up with him. Maybe I could shout from the front door: "Is your dog okay? Can I help?"
But I don't. There are rules out there – barriers. Adults should not approach strange kids. Kids should not talk to strangers. Indeed, children should note details and report the incident once they are in a safe place such as home, the nearest corner store, the school. Every strange adult is a suspected predator and must be guarded against.
I've helped kids since I was a 12-year-old babysitter. When I was 16 and 17 another student and I ran playground programs for up to 100 kids a day all through July and August. I later became a teacher and, as an insider, had the right to be with kids for 35 more years.
I used to spend happy times on the playground chatting to students about the games they were playing; asking about how their baby brother was doing; helping them settle fights with their classmates; and, yes, keeping an eye out for strange adults lurking outside the school fence. I made sure my class was included in the "Beware of strangers" talks the police-school-liaison officers gave each year.
Now I am retired. I have joined the massive pool of adult strangers who are not supposed to talk to kids they don't know. I get cold stares and careful answers when I transgress.
One of my first post-teacher "reprimands" occurred a few months after I retired. It was one of those lovely, shock-blue-sky days with snowfields aching to become snowmen. I walked by a front yard that doesn't have a fence on my street where two kids were struggling to roll a massive snow belly onto their bottom ball of snow. I joined them. (Retired women aren't necessarily weaklings). They seemed pleased with the added heft.
Looking up, I saw their mom, arms folded, standing outside her front door. She hadn't been there seconds before. She was NOT smiling. I stammered, "Just helping them with their snowman," and quickly moved on. She knows me now and I do get to chat with the kids when they're bouncing around their front yard or whizzing around the neighbourhood on their bikes, but boy, had she moved fast that day to protect them!
I've adapted. I now tend to chat to kids when their parents or supervisors are there. I still get mixed reactions, even from the children. My husband and I visited the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just outside of Edmonton two years ago. A group of students and their leaders were gulping down sandwiches and granola bars before the next activity. Curious, I asked a girl close to me how she was enjoying the day and what she was doing. It was like my old teacher days.
She shared her worksheets and we chatted about what a great place this was. Another group came along and a boy, probably in Grade 6, sat beside me on my sunny bench. I asked him what school he was from and got an astute, careful answer: "One of the schools in the Edmonton area."
Don't tell a stranger anything that may possibly identify you.
There are reasons kids shouldn't talk to strangers, but are we too cautious? Are there no safe contexts?
My stepson was pretty fearful when he was little. I remember my husband and I having to assure him that it was okay to talk to an older adult in our local grocery store. His scared silence turned into a smiling exchange. Our son has grown to be an empathetic and confident adult who regularly engages the public through his business and the bands in which he plays. Would he be that man if we had taught him the world was unsafe?
I just googled a CBC report from May of last year. Of 46,718 Canadian children reported missing in 2011, 25 children were abducted by a "stranger" – a misnomer since the category stranger means anyone who isn't the parent and includes relatives and people known by the family. The news item continued: In 2003, two members of the RCMP's National Missing Children Services studied the 90 "stranger" abductions that had occurred in 2000 and 2001. In the end, only one child had been kidnapped by a true stranger. Other, later reports indicate the same pattern.
So what are we really doing when we tell children not to talk to strangers? We are generating fear, conjuring up an ogre world. We are constricting opportunities for children and adults to enjoy each other; to form bonds; to understand. We are building a boxed-off society, age-defined eggs in a crate.
Instead, we could be opening ourselves to a richly diverse and involved intergenerational community. And we would laugh a whole lot more. Kids are really fun!
Next time I see a child carrying a heavy, squirming dog, I'm going to risk a metaphorical slap on my hand. He may turn and run, but I may get to help a kid with a hapless puppy. Even better, we may become true old-young friends.
Gloria J. Toole lives in Calgary.