Last weekend, I took my 6-year-old daughter to a birthday party for her classmate, yet another in the endless stream of birthday parties that have come to dominate my weekends as a parent. The event was held at one of those cavernous spaces full of screaming, running children and colossal bouncy structures.
When we walked in, my daughter removed her shoes and took off, darting after her friends, into a blow-up castle twice the size of my house. Every so often I’d spot her climbing through a tube, but following her movements was impossible. So I went over to talk to the other relaxed moms and tried not to stress about the situation.
But a few minutes later, I couldn’t resist the urge to check on her again. I scanned the massive room for her long brown hair but couldn’t spot her. I looked into every bouncy corridor, up every inflated slide and into every jumpy space I could, trying to catch a glimpse of her purple sweatshirt, with no luck. And then I saw her.
She was holding hands with a grown man I had never seen before and they were walking away. The man was in his 40s, heavy-set with a leather jacket and jeans. My heart plunged, and then I ran over, unsure of what to say.
“What’s going on?” I asked, trying not scare my daughter, who suddenly froze.
“I’m taking her to find her friends,” said the man calmly. “I’m friends with their family.” They were still holding hands.
I grabbed my daughter back as the birthday mom came over and explained the man was a friend and my daughter was looking for the birthday girl.
“I’ll help her,” I said as we briskly walked away.
My first thought was outrage at the incredible stupidity of a grown man who thinks it’s fine to hold hands with a little girl he doesn’t know and to offer to take her anywhere.
My next thought was anger at my daughter, whom I’ve told not to talk to strangers, that she’d let this man hold her hand and walk her anywhere. How could she have been so clueless?
But then I realized that this was on me. I have told my daughter not to go anywhere with a stranger, but I’ve never really prepared her for a situation where someone might actually try to make that happen. I’ve never explained to her that people might lie and say they know me, and tell her I sent them to help her, or that they know her or will take her somewhere great.
I never told her that sometimes people in cars pull up next to children and try to make them look at pictures of lost puppies and then ask them to get in. I never told her ― in the most definitive of terms ― that she never ever holds hands with a strange adult and walks off anywhere with them.
I thought telling my kids not to talk to strangers was enough. I didn’t want to scare them with details of a scenario that would probably never happen or pierce their innocence with the vulgar realities of our world. But I’m over it.
The man in this case meant no harm, but I keep flashing back and wondering… if I hadn’t run over, where might they have walked? What if he changed his mind and walked her out the door to his car? Or into a bathroom or a closet?
That night, I got all of my children together and my husband and I had a long talk about strangers and what to do if they’re ever approached, and what kinds of lies and stories they might hear.
So please, talk to your children about strangers. If you haven’t had this conversation yet, have it.
And I’ll save “Why I hate kid’s birthday parties” for another article.