Marin County, where this story takes place, has the lowest violent crime rate of all nine San Francisco Bay Area counties. It also ranks 4th lowest in violent crime amongst all 58 California counties. You’ll need this for context. When folks in Marin have an issue with someone, we hash it out over organic Genmaicha tea down at the gluten-free bakery. Get the picture? Marin is a chill place. Which is why the little girl’s reaction to my friendly “Good morning” was such a shocker. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the sunny morning in question, I strolled my neighborhood and crossed paths with a five year old and her dad. I said “Good morning” to the father who stopped, smiled warmly and said, “Hey! How’s it going?” (Which is Marin for “Hi”) The two were obviously coming from the school down the hill, so I said to the girl, “Do you go to school at Brookside?” She looked down at her shoes and tightened her grip on her dad’s hand. Dad chuckled and informed me that his daughter is “kinda shy.” I didn’t think much of it and said to him, “My kids went to Brookside. It’s a nice school.” Dad agreed and started to tell me how his daughter was enjoying kindergarten. At that point the little girl yanked her father’s hand and said, “You’re not supposed to talk to strangers.” He seemed embarrassed but continued our conversation. “Yes, Ms. Hillson is a terrific teach… ” But he couldn’t finish because his daughter frantically pulled on his arm and tried dragging him away, all the while screaming, “Don’t talk to strangers, Daddy!!Don’t talk to strangers!!!”
She kept carrying on, pulling Dad along like a bad dog. He followed (lest his arm be severed from his body), but not before glancing back and giving me a helpless look.
Wow! I thought. That kid seriously needs some green tea and a yoga class. She’s obviously been indoctrinated into the “Stranger Danger” mindset to the degree that she believes everyone she doesn’t know is a lethal threat. She also doesn’t trust her dad can a) take care of himself and b) take care of her.
Walking on, I felt so sorry for the child and wondered what kids miss when they no longer have friendly encounters with neighbors.
A moment later another five year old girl appeared walking with her mom up the hill from the school (I do write fiction, but I swear I didn’t make this up.) Undeterred, I said, “Good morning” to the mom. At which point Little Girl#2 smiled brightly and said, ‘I go to Brookside School. I’m in kindergarten. Today my teacher read us Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Do you know that story? It’s about a donkey who turns into a rock. It’s kinda sad but then his parents make a wish and he turns back into himself again. Then they have a party. Do you have kids? Do they go to Brookside?”
Her mom laughed, delighted her little girl was so confident and friendly.
I was delighted by her too. My kind of neighbor. We stopped and chatted for a while. I told her about a few other books she and her mom might enjoy together. Then we waved goodbye.
So what do you tell your children about strangers? I get that not everyone lives in a place like Marin, but what’s the right balance to strike when you teach kids about taking care of themselves when they are on their own and around people they don’t know?