We live in a scary world. A world where we need to be cautious of strangers and, more importantly, we need to teach out children to be weary. But how do you teach a child to be safe without teaching them to be afraid? How do you teach kids to balance being polite with being safe? And why do strangers insist on making this training even more difficult?
K is already a weary child by nature. She takes time to warm up to everyone and all new situations, so for the first nearly three years of her life I have concentrated on teaching her to be polite. I encourage her to say hello every well-meaning person we pass who greets her, and I have taught her to say thank you to every compliment about how adorable she is, her lovely hair, how well behaved she is or her fashionable attire. But where does the line between polite and being alert begin? It is a topic I have heard debated at playgroups since she was born, and it continues to perplex me.
On our weekly trip to CVS today, we were greeted by an elderly (late 70s/early 80s) woman with her also-elderly husband. She was a sweet lady, and I am sure her intentions were meant well, but the jaded parent in me was put on HIGH alert.
The woman asked my daughter if she likes turtles, and in a cheery voice I replied for her, “Oh, she loves turtles,” as my daughter tucked her chin down and stared at her hands. The next thing I knew, the lady was pulling something out of her purse and reaching to hand it to my daughter (remember I said elderly, she couldn’t bend down to reach my daughter, so I had to assist.) The woman handed over a small plastic turtle.
“That’s for you to take in the bath,” the woman said. “Now put it in your pocket and be sure not to loose it.”
The polite mom in me told my daughter (who was grinning from ear to ear), “What do you say to the nice lady?”
With a cheerful, “Thank you,” my daughter pocketed her little turtle.
The over-protective mom in me stepped in at this point, and we got out of line to go look for something we had “forgotten” in the store… When we got to the car, all my daughter could talk about was that turtle, which I had already calculated would not be coming home with us. I explained that the turtle was dirty and needed to stay in her jacket pocket, dreading her asking for it at home. Without fail, she has asked for it twice since we arrived home and asked to give it a bath. For now the turtle is hidden in the closet until I can further inspect the prize during nap time. But even if she forgets about the turtle (with our trip to the circus tonight), I am filled with angst.
What should I have done, what did this teach her? I am so proud of the polite little girl that she has become (with my constant encouragement), so I don’t want her to be rude to people – strangers or otherwise. And yet… she must learn that not all strangers are well meaning. Where is the balance? And why must there even be a balance? This woman most certainly was just being kind (albeit a little odd), it makes me terribly sad that in today’s world her actions should be seen as intrusive and troubling to a mother who wants to protect her child from the evils of the world.
What would you do? How do you teach your kids to be polite vs safe?