I walked into my 4 year old's preschool at pick-up time. His teacher was just finishing a story.
"And remember, NEVER talk to STRANGERS."
Inwardly, I cringed. Because the more I've read, and the more I've thought about it, I really think the whole stranger paranoia is giving the wrong message.
We walked out to the car. "Mommy, NEVER talk to strangers."
"Well, sometimes it's ok to talk to strangers."
"But Ms. Paula says never talk to strangers."
"I know, and in school you shouldn't disagree with her, but Mommy and Daddy think it's ok to talk to strangers sometimes."
He got really upset and started crying. Which made me start to tear up. I pulled myself together, glad I was in the front seat and he was in back (and thus couldn't see me).
"When is it ok to talk to strangers?" I asked. "Can you think of something you did recently when you talked to strangers?"
"Trick or treat."
"Yep. You went trick or treating and talked to lots of people you didn't know. Do you know when else you've talked to strangers?"
"Do you play with kids you don't know when we're at the park?"
"Well, those are strangers. When do you think it would be ok to talk to strangers?"
"I don't know."
"What about if Mommy got lost in a store? Do you think it would be ok to talk to a stranger? Maybe find the register and ask for help?" A pause while he considered that. "How about if we make a different rule: don't go with strangers."
"Ok," meekly from the back seat.
"If someone came up to you and it wasn't trick or treat and said 'here, little boy, have some candy' what should you do?"
"Yes. And if someone offered you a ride and you didn't know them, what should you do?"
"Not get in the car."
"Exactly. And you should yell, really loudly, 'NO! I don't know you!'"
"But that's not appropriate." (We've had talks about yelling lately.)
"This is a case when it's entirely appropriate and I want you to yell." Another pause while he thought about that. "If Mommy or Daddy couldn't pick you up at school, do you know who is allowed to pick you up? Who you can go with?"
"No." More tears. This whole conversation was very upsetting for him, especially the idea of Mommy getting lost or not being able to pick him up.
So I listed the people who are approved to pick him up.
"Do you think most people are basically good or basically bad?"
"You're right! So are most of the strangers you meet mostly good?"
"So is it sometimes ok to talk to strangers?"
At that point, he didn't want to talk more. This will be a conversation that we'll need to address time and again. Learning to judge when it's ok and not ok to talk to strangers takes a little practice. But it's a lesson we need to work on because knowing how to live in a world where most of the people you encounter are strangers is good.
This conversation is quite timely, actually. I'm going to a parenting book club with my moms group tonight where we will be discussing Free Range Kids. I've been following the blog for a while and have read the book. I've done at least the baby step in each chapter. While Chris and I have talked about a lot of the ideas in the book, this was the first big conversation with one of the boys about the topics.