I live in the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else. I can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without stopping to say hi to someone I know. My daughter is usually with me, and she says hi to whoever it is also. Getting to know your neighbors is important. When Adi is old enough to go to the playground by herself, I know she won’t have to look more than a few feet to find an adult she knows if she ever needs any help. Everyone says it takes a village. It’s true. Our “village” is our neighborhood. And it’s playing a huge role in raising Adi. I can’t stress enough how happy I am to live where I live and how wonderful it is that Adi has so many people to talk to.
Adi loves talking to people. Whenever we go to the park she says hi to everyone we come across, whether we know them or not. I’ve never worried about ‘stranger danger’ much, I’m more in the ‘free range’ parenting camp than anything else. I’ve never discouraged her from talking to anyone.
That all came to a stop last week on the subway. Every so often on the subway, you come across a person that you shouldn’t really interact with. The kind of person where anyone with even an ounce of street smarts would avoid. The kind of person you don’t make eye contact with. The kind of person who makes you hold your child’s hand on the subway a little tighter. One of those people came on to the subway and sat near my daughter and I. Things went smoothly for about 4 stops.
Then Adi looked him in the eye and said hi. He ignored her and kept angrily mumbling to himself. Then Adi pointed to him and yelled “Stinky!”
In Adi’s defense he smelled like a combination of marijuana, dirty socks, and onions.
Anyway, Mr Mumbler stopped mumbling. Adi said hi again. He said hi back. Then he angrily said “what do you want”. To a two-year old. Adi (being two) completely missed the anger in his voice and said “candy”. I, mentally going over my Krav Maga knowledge, made eye contact with him and prepared to slide Adi off my lap so I could punch this guy in the neck.
Fortunately, my “death stare” (as my husband calls it) shut the guy up. Unfortunately, Adi kept talking to him. I tried to distract her with some iPhone apps, but the angry stinky man was just too interesting. As soon as our stop came, I flew away faster than a toupee on a windy day. I was praying that this guy wouldn’t follow us off because I wasn’t sure if I how effectively I could kick this guy in the nads while holding Adi if he did. He didn’t. Phew!
I grew up on Staten Island, in Willowbrook. There was a pretty famous (or infamous) mental institution in Willowbrook. It closed in 1987 when I was a baby. That same year, a mentally disturbed former orderly (and it turned out serial killer) from Willowbrook State School kidnapped, killed, and buried a girl a few blocks away from my house. It was the height of ’stranger danger’ hysteria in America and I was raised in ground zero. The woods near my house were forbidden ground. There were ‘bad people’ there. Kids who got caught sneaking into the woods were read the riot act by their parents. We were taught that strangers were dangerous. Really dangerous. Strangers kill. Don’t talk to strangers. Ever.
I don’t want Adi to grow up afraid of strangers. The chances of her being killed by a stranger are astronomically slim. Tragedies happen, but I can’t live my life in fear of them. I think ‘stranger danger’ should be replaced with ‘stranger smarts’. All that being said, I have no idea how to explain stranger smarts to a toddler who has never had any reason to be afraid of anybody, who sees me talking to people who she perceives to be strangers on the street all the time. “Listen Adi, some people are bad and they might kill you and bury you in the woods” is not something I want to say to her. I later explained that calling people stinky and pointing was impolite and I think she understood, but I need to impress upon her that Mommy can’t follow her around through life punching people in the neck for her, so if someone is acting angry and talking to himself it’s probably best not to say hi.
I’m freaked out by the subway incident. I’m a -take Adi out of art class and stick her in a toddler self-defense class so she can kick people in the nads if she has to- kind of freaked out. I’ve taken her on the subway since then, without incident and that’s made me feel a bit better, and I know that Adi will pick up some street (and stranger) smarts as she gets older… but I don’t want another day like that day to happen.
I wonder if my husband will volunteer himself for an at-home nads kicking lesson. Probably not.
Adi is friendly and outgoing. I don’t want her to be afraid of people. I do want her to be cautious of some people though. Like the kind of people who mumble to themselves on the subway.
I also want her to have good nad kicking skills. Just in case.
Rachel Figueroa-Levin is a soapmaker, cofounder and educator at Urban Babywearing, a hyperlocal Inwood blogger and organizer, a political/life/religion/parenting satirist, and all around trouble maker. She is also the creator New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish-speaking alter ego @elbloombito. You can reach her via twitter @Jewyorican.