Don’t Talk to Strangers; Teaching my Children to be Safely Polite

My generation was the first to be taught not to talk to strangers.

Whether it was because of advanced media coverage or an increased awareness of the hidden dangers of the world, my parents led us to believe that the big bad wolf was just around the corner. Evil lurked everywhere and behind the friendly smile was a criminal waiting to lure us into a van using a puppy or a candy, or worse; a puppy eating candy.

The world was no longer safe. Times had changed, and the world had changed and we were in danger of being kidnapped or worse every time we left our homes. Leave it to Beaver was just a memory, and Mayberry was a fantasy. The term “Stranger Danger” was on the tip of our tongues at all times.

The premise behind this message is well intentioned. There is danger in going off with a stranger (obviously). There is a potential threat when opening the door to someone you don’t know. Children should make cautious choices when they are around adults that they don’t know, and adults they don’t know well. Children should be educated in how to be safe when there isn’t a guardian near by to make those choices for them.

My only concern with this movement is that in enforcing “Stranger Danger”, we lost something that made our world a friendlier more pleasant place. We lost the ability to make harmless, polite chit-chat with other human beings that we come into contact with on a daily basis. We forgot to teach our children how to be cordial; we have forgotten how to be polite.

We recently went to a theme park and the four of us were rambling through a passageway to the ride. The line hadn’t started yet, so we were just snaking through the rows and rows of rails intended for summer crowds, when a young woman, probably in her early twenties, came up behind us. She walked behind us for a minute or so before my husband told the kids to move to the side so she could go by. He very politely smiled at her and said, “Go ahead, we are going to be awhile.” She passed him, but said absolutely nothing. No smile, no response, no thank you. She just kept on walking. We looked at each other and shrugged, but it got me thinking about how we allow (or don’t allow) our kids to speak to people they don’t know. Was she taught not to talk to strangers as a child so that she never developed the ability to respond politely to a stranger, or was she just rude?

I embarrass my children every single time we go to the grocery store. I will chat with just about anyone that catches my eye; friendly, meaningless, mundane comments about the cereal or the size of the isles or the squeaky cart wheel.

I found a man at the check out who tells me riddles while I’m unloading my groceries onto the conveyer belt and I look for his line every time.

At the very least I am sure to be polite and wish the person who is helping me a good afternoon, or a good morning and smile at them genuinely.  I know how one rude person can put you in a mood when you work retail, but I also know that one friendly person can make your day.

My children are both on the quiet side; no one would ever call them out going. Believe it or not, neither am I. I have learned the art of chit chat from my parents, who both embarrassed me at the store as a child. Even now, my dad refers to a specific person at Food Lion as “my check-out girl” and he calls his pharmacist by name.

If someone says hello to my daughter in a store, or is friendly and comments on my son’s hat (he has quite a collection), they are often greeted back with a stare and a gaping mouth. I have to prod them to speak; remind them to be polite. I am am with them, they are safe, it is acceptable to return the greeting. It has taken years of this for them to now reply in a reserved but well mannered way. It had me worried that I was raising rude children that will grow to be rude adults. It didn’t happen automatically for my children; and I wonder what message I was unknowingly sending them about the world in general when I told them to fear all strangers.

Without this meaningless chatter, we lose our sense of community and in fact our sense of humanity. It helps us to remember that the people we encounter on a daily basis are also, in fact, human, and have worries and triumphs and moods and feelings just like we do.

I am striving to model to my children how to be safely polite. I want them to be the person that leaves someone with a smile or a pleasant thought; not the person who leaves someone wondering how their mother raised them.

 I want them to see that there is a level of appropriate chatter with the folks in our community that is acceptable and well mannered.

I want them to know the difference at a young age, when they are supervised by an adult, so that as they enter their pre-teen and teenage years and I am not glued to their sides, they will understand that they can talk to the lady at the grocery store, but they should turn away from the man that approaches them in the parking lot. I want them to smile at older folks that say, “Good afternoon, young man,” and say “Good afternoon,” back in reply; I also want them to be confident enough NOT to answer the lady who asks what their names are and where they live. At the very least, I want them to be able to say, “I’m sorry if I seem rude, but I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

Can we teach them to be polite and safe? As I write this I’m more concerned about the people that seem safe; the coach or or the parent of a friend that is not considered a stranger than the random schmo on the street.

I want to land the helicopter parenting and let them live without the daily threat of fear.

But perhaps, I’m still dreaming of Mayberry.