Last week I took Sally and Bobby for a walk. Sally was on her new, bigger bike. It wasn’t actually new—it was Sean’s twenty years ago, recently pulled from a barn and fixed up—but it was new to her, and it was the first time she’d been out on it. Bobby, age two, was on his pink car-scooter, which had been Sally’s before him, a gift from one of my sisters. He operates it by using his legs to push off, similar to using two oars in tandem, and the speed he can achieve is truly impressive. He adores that little car-scooter, and rarely leaves the house without it.
Now, I knew from the beginning that taking a walk with both of them on their own wheels wouldn’t be easy. They could get too far apart, or Sally might have trouble with her bike and need help. So I took the large stroller with us, knowing I could strap Bobby in it and tuck his car-scooter in with him if need me. And besides, I planned to stick to neighborhood roads without a lot of traffic. And it would be a fun summer memory, right? So off we went!
Things went fine for a while. Sometimes I had to push Sally on her bike to give her the momentum she needed, and sometimes I had to call ahead to Bobby to stop and wait for us, but it was working overall. But then we went down a prolonged gentle slope, and Bobby took off at top speed while Sally freaked out and froze up. I tried to get Sally moving again and I hollered urgently for Bobby to strop and wait—which he did, a full block ahead and in the middle of the street. Again, these were neighborhood streets, but still.
I told Sally to stay right where she was and took off running toward Bobby, pushing the stroller as I went. Just at that moment, a truck pulled up parallel to Bobby and an older man got out and walked around the truck toward Bobby. I ran faster, and in a few moments I reached the spot where the two of the, we’re staring at each other, Bobby on his car-scooter, the older man standing a few steps away.
As I approached, the man looked up. “I saw your predicament,” he said. “I thought I’d make sure this one didn’t get any farther away from you.” He gestured to Bobby. I thanked him profusely and then strapped Bobby into the stroller, curtailing his time on his car-scooter for the sake of his safety and my nerves. Bobby wasn’t happy about this, but I told him it was just for a little while and I’d let him out again when I found a safer place for him and his car-scooter. The man smiled at us and then got back into his truck and went on his was. I turned the stroller and pushed it, Bobby, car-scooter, and all back up the slope to where I’d left Sally on the sidewalk.
“I have to keep him safe,” I said.
“Stranger danger,” Sally replied.
Here’s the thing: There was a stranger in this situation, but he stepped in to help, not to kidnap. Statistically speaking, most strangers are not dangerous in the least. In fact, most strangers will lend a hand to a child in need, like the older man who stopped his truck to corral Bobby until I could get to him.
Bobby now safely ensconced in the stroller, we continued our walk. Sally became more and more comfortable on her new bike as we went along, and at last we came to our local greenway, an old railroad track paved over and used by cyclists, runners, and people out for a stroll. I let Bobby out of the stroller and returned his car-scooter. Sally took off on her bike with the thrill of the open road.
It was a beautiful day, and we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the greenway. At one point Bobby began to dawdle and Sally gained a lead of fifty yards or so. As I kept my eye on Sally, I noticed two twenty-something men walking the opposite direction turn and look at Sally as she passed them. Then I saw them ask something of a woman ahead of me on the greenway, and I realized they were trying to verify that Sally wasn’t lost or alone.
“She’s mine!” I called out, waving my arm. The two men looked in my direction with relief, and nodded at me pleasantly as we passed. I hurried Bobby up to close the distance between us and Sally, who was by now peddling away on her bike quite happily.
Once again, a stranger stepped in to ensure my children’s safety rather than to threaten it. But should that be surprising? I’ve looked around for a child’s parent before, preparing to step in and help should the child be lost or unattended. I’ve helped a child up, or stepped in to stop bullying at the park.
Sally tells me that she learned the term “stranger danger” at her preschool. I can’t say that I’m surprised. I told her what I’ve told her several times before—that most strangers will be nothing but kind and helpful to her. Kidnappings carried out by strangers are actually very rare, and most sexual abuse is carried out by a relative or known acquaintance, not a stranger. I reminded her, as I’ve told her before, that she should be on the lookout for “tricky” behavior—people who tell her to keep something a secret from Sean or I, or who don’t respect her physical boundaries.
“Stranger danger” may be an easy slogan to remember, but keeping children safe is not that simple—or simplistic.