Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers (or Why I Don't Believe in "Stranger Danger")

Hadley was four when she got lost at Disneyland.  We went toward Alice in Wonderland, she went toward Dumbo and instantly disappeared into the crowd.  As soon as we started calling her name, several families instantly volunteered to look for her.  A Japanese woman took me by the hand and began pointing out little blonde girls asking, "Is she yours?  Is that one yours?  Don't worry.  We'll find her."

Another couple took a look at the picture of her on our camera and offered to make a loop around Fantasyland to try to find her.  "We'll meet you back at Dumbo in a few minutes."

Despite the fact that Disneyland is an unlikely place for would-be kidnappers (expensive admissions, only one exit, hundreds of families videotaping every happy moment) ten minutes seems like hours when you can't find a small child.  Just when we were about to really panic, an Indian family showed up.  They were all glancing around, looking concerned.  Hadley was in the middle of the group holding the hand of the father, and he was patting it gently.  "Your mommy?" he asked as Hadley saw me and dissolved into tears.  For the rest of the trip, he was known as "THE NICE MAN WHO BROUGHT ME BACK TO YOU."  And if he ever reads anything I write, I hope he knows that I am still grateful.  

The Japanese woman smiled and patted Hadley's head, "Have a great day!"  The other couple looked relieved when they came back empty handed and saw Hadley sobbing with us.  "Oh good!"

We thanked our impromptu volunteers and went on our way, grateful for the kindness of strangers.  After we got home and I told someone that story, she said, "Oh my gosh, Hadley just up and went with a MAN she didn't know??!!  You NEVER KNOW what might have happened.  You really got lucky this time."

Well, I suppose that is true to some extent.  I don't actually know what's going to happen when I get up and walk out the door, but I do know that my daughter is unlikely to be kidnapped  at Disneyland.  Most people there don't want to leave with more tired, whiny, sugar-hyped kids than they came with.  I wasn't actually worried that Hadley had been kidnapped, I was more concerned that she was hurt or scared.  I was glad I'd never taught her to ignore people she didn't know, otherwise it probably would have taken longer to find her.  

My friend has taught her daughters to look at their shoes and mumble "I don't know," when any stranger (librarian, cashier, receptionist) talks to them.  They are afraid to leave their mother's side and she attends every practice, lesson, and playdate they have -- at ages seven and nine.    

Despite the fact that I have heard "experts" warn me about stranger danger my entire life, even more so after I had kids, my experience suggests something completely different, and I like it much better.  I have been repeatedly rescued by compassionate strangers.  I was ten when my sister and I fell skiing and lost all our gear on the side of a mountain.  A stranger helped us collect it and sent us on our way.  At sixteen, my car overheated in the mountains and someone gave me a ride to the nearest Denny's so I could get water and call my dad.  When I was eighteen, I spent the night at a gas station employees' house because my car broke down.  A stranger in a cafe wrote me a charming poem about my freckles.  My husband and I got a ride in Idaho from a forest service guy winterizing campgrounds when one of the seats on our tandem sheared off.  When Liam, as a preschooler, got a splinter stuck all the way through the skin between his thumb and index finger, a stranger pulled it out while I held him.  (We still refer to him as the "Nice Cowboy" because of his boots and hat.)  I've bummed diapers, band-aids, juice boxes, and sunscreen off strangers, and I've been just as happy to pay it forward.

We regularly have people live with us, and we've never met any of them before they showed up at the door with their bags.  We're not combing parks looking for local weirdos, but if we get a request or we hear of a need, we'll offer what we have.  We've gotten to know students from Italy, cyclists from Australia, and teenagers from Japan.  In addition to having places to stay now when we visit these countries, our world is more connected, foreign things are less threatening, bridges are built, not burned.  A little risk, discretion, and equipping goes a long way.  

There are simply not enough kidnappers to lurk behind every shrub and loiter ominously near every park.  Most strangers aren't dangerous and teaching your kids that everyone you don't know wants to hurt you simply isn't true.  Most of the bad stuff that's happened to me and my family has been deliberately doled out by people I know or people my kids know.  The easiest place to start is to tell your kids that if they need help and they can't find you, look for a stroller and find another mom.


Jessica Bristol said...

And, most of the time, kids are kidnapped by people they know, not by complete strangers. The majority of people are likely to help someone, especially a child, in trouble. Why are we so afraid?

julss said...

Amen, my mother-in-law and I were just discussing the same topic last night! I have had quite a few similar experiences with flat tires and breakdowns. My family was even offered a a home to stay in during an out of town emergency because a couple befriended us in a hospital waiting room. We want to teach our kids to be careful, not terrified.

Adriana Hartley said...

You're so cool. I like the way you think (and write.)

Julie Colwell said...

Thanks! It's so true that we gain so much more by trusting each other. Most people are honored to have their help accepted. And at some point, we are all going to need to trust someone we don't know. There was a line in The King and I that said, "Unless somebody trust somebody, there'll be nothing left on earth excepting fishes."

girlhowdy said...

What a beautiful reminder Julie. (I'm Jeanie B's friend who met you at Forest Home last year). It puts me in mind of this great quotation of Helen Keller:
"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

We can probably all think of dozens of great experiences with helpful strangers, many more than dangerous ones. Yes, we need to teach our children to be wise, but not fearful.

Sarah said...

So glad to find your blog. I am a woman who realized you can't have it all, at least not at the same time...

I am out of town this week visiting my DH who is in training for the army and my mom had to go pick up my kids after school. It is a new school for our family, they have only gone there for less than two weeks.

My mom went to the wrong door to pick up my DD. She texted me about it later, told me she was nearly in tears, panicking. She must have also had my two boys with her, 4 & 6, searching around in a place where most would be afraid something could happen to a little girl.

The parents all came to her rescue. She was quickly recovered.

When I think about it, the kindness of strangers has more often than not been the rule, not the exception. I have had so many people help me who did not know me...
I have added your blog to my blog roll on

Julie Colwell said...

Totally agree, Sarah! I think the exceptions are so bad that they get all the attention. But they are also so rare that they aren't worth spending much time worrying about. It's such a relief to discover that most people around you, even if you don't know them, are willing to jump in and help.

Off to go check out your blog...