This post originally appeared at the Portland Moms Blog.
“Mom, I’m gonna have to call you back. Jane just spanked some guy on the playground.” I couldn’t hang up fast enough. I had just witnessed my barely-five-year-old daughter slap the backside of a man I had never seen before. His eyes immediately found mine and his hands went up in the air as if to say, “I had nothing to do with that.” I nodded apologetically and motioned for my daughter to come to the picnic table.
Totally shocked and embarrassed, I tried to quickly understand why she did what she did. Jane explained that she had been watching the dad and his son playing tag and decided to join in. She was simply “tagging” the dad.
I immediately launched into my speech about “keeping our hands to ourselves,” especially with strangers, ESPECIALLY man-strangers. I tried to keep my explanation clear and brief. “We don’t touch strangers and we don’t let strangers touch us.” I watched the wheels spinning in her innocent head and I felt stuck. I was 90% sure this dad playing at the park with his son was a nice guy, but the issue wasn’t playing tag at the park. The issue was that my daughter felt no fear or reservation about touching a stranger. Slapping him, actually, on the butt. This was a red flag for me as a mommy, especially for me as the mom of a very friendly, fearless, young girl.
Up until that afternoon, my daughter defined “stranger” as someone whose name she didn’t know. Her definition of “friend” was simply someone who played with or gave her attention. So, before bedtime that night, Jane and I revisited the events at the park and I took those definitions a bit deeper. I explained that not everyone in the world is kind and not all strangers are safe to play with. My heart hurt as I shared this reality with my little girl. I kept it simple, but I was firm, too. I wrapped it up by telling her that it was not her job to know who was safe and who was not. That’s why she had a mommy. It was my job to keep her safe and vet her new friends.
We made a new rule that night and agreed that if she wanted to play with a new friend at the park, she had to come ask mommy first. I would let her know if the friend was safe and we would go from there.
I hate that I poured a small dose of fear into my sweet girl’s heart. I know it was necessary and I know it was in love but I still hate it. I wish I could tell my kids that everyone is kind and generous and selfless and safe, but that would be a dangerous lie.
I want my kids to be wise and cautions but I don’t want them to bear the burden of having to know which stranger is safe and which to avoid. Not yet. Not at ages 7 and 5 and 2. I don’t want to rob them of the joy of making a new friend at the park or saying “hello” as we pass someone new on the street.
The world is different now than when I was five. It’s scarier, for sure. But I’m not ready to hand that reality over to my little ones just yet. Not completely, at least. For now, while I can, I will carry that heaviness for them and pray for their protection and more “mommy” wisdom for the many “big” conversations still to come.