The Kindness of Strangers?

I know a mother who holds her 5-year-old son in front of the
television whenever a program about missing children comes on and
says: ‘You watch this. Don’t you ever leave my side.’ She is not
alone in her terror of strangers. Indeed, a 1987 Roper poll found
that 76 percent of children feared being kidnapped; it was their
number one concern. In ‘Parents’ Worries About Children Compared to
Actual Risks,’ several Mayo Clinic pediatricians reported in
Clinical Pediatrics (Vol. 30, No. 9, 1991) that 72 percent
of parents feared that their child would be kidnapped by a

Public perception, fueled by highly publicized cases such as
that of Polly Klaas, ‘America’s child,’ snatched from her Northern
California home last year by a bearded stranger, overshadows the
fact that the number of stranger abductions — 3,500 to 4,000
annually out of 64 million children in the United States — has
remained stable for the past decade, according to the National
Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A child is far more
likely to be abused or abducted by a neighbor, family member, or
friend. Though one child abducted is one too many, fear of
strangers is vastly disproportionate to the reality.

…children are doomed to a life of self-imposed isolation,
their ‘community’ little more than the treacherous space between
destinations, bogeymen lurking behind every bush.

It’s difficult to keep this in perspective when the anonymous
bogeyman is everywhere — in articles such as ‘What to Do When a
Stranger Says Hello’ in Family Life (Sept./Oct. 1994), for
example. In a sidebar ‘Note to Parents,’ Lenore Wright reminds
parents that ‘children do not need to be afraid, they need to be
careful and to be prepared,’ but the headline communicates louder
than her reassurances. Just when we start to calm down and get our
bearings in fact, another headline hooks us with fear. The stranger
abduction exception begins to seem like the rule.

But young children create images from the threads of stereotypes
presented by television, family, and community. In a 1987 HBO
television special entitled ‘How to Raise a Street Smart Child,’
children illustrated their concrete understanding of the world when
they were asked to provide definitions of stranger. ‘Big?.?.?.
bigger than you, bigger than most people,’ said one child. ‘A
stranger sometimes wears a hat?.?.?. sometimes a black or brown
jacket and is a guy with a beard?.?.?. some hair and a mustache and
some glasses,’ said another. Still another described the stranger
as ‘a punk rocker that drinks beer all day and sits around in a
vacant lot.’

Though many public school curriculums are peppered with the
words diversity and tolerance, the subversive message of ‘stranger
danger’ education may be far more powerful: Different is dangerous.
Thus, the figure of the stranger is invested with a range of
stereotypes, each one insidiously linked to fear. This means some
20 million ‘foreigners’ who call the U.S. home and others who
‘don’t look like they’re from around here’ because of race or
appearance are doomed to be objects of fear.

I have been there, unable to shake the image of Polly Klaas’
face from my mind. Once I had seen her, heard the story of her
abduction, the image grew to monstrous proportions. The ‘what if’
became reality. Yet parental fear of stranger abductions can
interfere with some of the most fundamental tasks of parenting, as
the Mayo Clinic pediatricians noted: ‘It is not uncommon for
mothers to report that fears about abduction inhibit their ability
to foster independence and self-reliance in their children.’ The
gap between fact and perception has created an abyss of fear more
treacherous than the actual threat of stranger abductions.

I was reminded of this with our 5-year-old son. He recently
began making the trek from our house to his friend’s at the end of
our quiet, tree-lined street. The first few times I watched him
until he became a wobbly dot at the end of the long white sidewalk
and turned onto his friend’s steps. Gradually, I grew comfortable
and so did he. I soon stopped watching. One day my son spoke to two
people he had never seen before. They asked him if he was lost.
‘No,’ he told them. ‘I’m going to my friend’s house.’ He continued
on his way, suspiciously looking back at the middle-aged couple as
he went. ‘They were staring at me,’ he said later. ‘Even if I was
lost, I wouldn’t tell them. I wouldn’t tell anybody. I’d find my
own way home.’

This may be the greatest cost of our mounting fear: Along with
millions of other Americans, children are doomed to a life of
self-imposed isolation, their ‘community’ little more than the
treacherous space between destinations, bogeymen lurking behind
every bush. This fear undermines a broader sense of community that
many argue is essential to raising healthy children.

Perhaps we all need to talk to more strangers, to get to know
‘different’ people with our children. After all, our fearful
stereotypes have made strangers of many who could be friends. In an
atmosphere of hope and trust children have a chance to acquire the
self-confidence they need not only to survive but to flourish.

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