Talking to Strangers

I was struck recently when a friend’s young daughter refused to speak to a gentleman we passed on a mountain trail.  He had asked her if she was having fun, and she replied, “Do I know you?”

The man looked at me and said, “Somebody is raising that kid right.” I thought he was being sarcastic, but he went on to explain that he believed it was good for children to be suspicious. My friend’s daughter told me later that she’d been instructed “never to talk to strangers.”

It reminds me of the time I quickly but softly caressed the cheek of a baby sitting in a grocery cart while his mom scanned the shelves for soup. My girlfriend at the time admonished me –  “You can’t touch other people’s  babies!” — as if this were some obvious fact of the universe. To think I could’ve missed a chance to feel that skin.

Why are we teaching our children to avoid most of the people they encounter? Statistics overwhelmingly show that most kidnappers and predators target children they know.

When I lived in Johannesburg, I loved how African kids referred to adults they knew well as uncle or auntie. It’s not that young people talked incessantly to everyone that walked by, but there was a sense that their circle was larger than their familial unit. I once asked one of my students to translate the Zulu word “ubuntu” for me: it was a difficult task, because the concept does not have a tidy English equivalent — I’d heard it loosely described as the “belief that your humanity is wrapped up in mine.” But here’s how my student put it: “When you’re in the township and see a woman coming off the taxi with too many shopping bags, you walk up and help her, even if you don’t know her.”

Look, over there, see that American kid with his head down?

Annie and I have always actively acted against this tendency, encouraging an open dialogue between Rio and the world. We’ve talked to him seriously about not following strangers or getting into their cars, but beyond that we’ve never intimated that he should be closed to anyone. When he was a newborn, we passed him to as many people as possible, believing that exposure to different smells and smiles would expand his view of the world. It’s not that we handed him over to strangers in stores and walked away, but we were eager to share the gift of him with the world and to have the world share back.

I am not naive: I know there are unsavory people out there, but Annie and I remain committed to nurturing Rio’s natural curiosity rather than manufacturing fear. To me, strangers represent not a threat but an opportunity to step outside of one’s own orbit and have it thus expanded. Who knows what that man on the trail might have had to say to my friend’s daughter.