The Danger of Stranger Danger

If you ever visit Little Rays of Sunshine Daycare, remember to walk fast, keep your head down, and don’t make eye contact—or else the three-year-olds will have sufficient time to exploit your fear. They like to ride tricycles over to the playground fence and give strange parents the stink eye. Walking past them, sometimes I feel like I ought to be carrying pepper spray, or at least a safety whistle. 

Child 1: “Who’s that?” 

Child 2: “He ain’t my dad.”

Child 3: “He ain’t my dad either.”

Child 2: “Hey, you, what’s your name?” (child rattles fence)

Me: (looking around, hoping child 2 is accosting someone else. Realizing he’s not, say name meekly): Umm, I’m Thomas’s dad.  

Whatever happened to teaching children to fear strangers? I mean, stranger danger was so successfully programmed into my belief system that now I’m wary of talking to strange three-year-olds. And by the time I was the ripe old age of three, my shyness level had already exceeded that of most woodland creatures, excepting perhaps the sasquatch.

Apparently, most babies develop an innate sense of stranger danger at about six months old, after which they begin to look warily at unknown faces. But it’s up to parents to foster this burgeoning fear into a healthy phobia that will not only save their child from the kidnappers plaguing the neighborhood, but make their child an incredibly awkward adult. 

“Don’t talk to strangers,” was the mantra of my childhood, and even now, I still hate trying to integrate myself in a group of strangers. I’ve tried many integration methods over the years. I’ve tried approaching with a mosey, spitting, and saying “howdy,” but that only works if you don’t spit on your shoe. I’ve tried the stealth approach in which I attempt to sidle up undetected and then act as if I’ve been there all along, but to some people that can be extremely alarming. I’ve tried the humorous approach, though the tripping-and-falling gag was purely by accident. Generally, my best method for introducing myself to strangers is to aim for the pity inclusion and employ endearing awkwardness.

Anyway, the more that I think about it, I’m glad the three-year-olds on tricycles have yet to be indoctrinated. It seems to me that “don’t talk to strangers” has an insidious suspicion baked into it. It teaches children to attribute nefarious and sinister motives to people who don’t look or talk like them. And if the current state of American society teaches us anything, it’s a civics lesson for what happens when opposing groups of people retreat to the comfort of echo chambers and thus never talk to strangers.