I was just in the next aisle. Standing next to Ittybit, who was facing the daunting task of choosing a bicycle helmet to replace the one our dog ate as an evening snack.
The Champ, bored of pink helmets and bikes no one would buy him, had ambled over to peruse toys in the next aisle with my blessing.
“Is he your boy?”
I looked up to find an older woman trying to be in two places at once. She was leaning toward me and trying to keep her eye on my son.
“Yes. He's mine,” I said quizzically, walking toward her to see what havoc he'd caused.
I hadn't realized it just then – as I was looking down the aisle at my son who was quietly weighing the options (LEGO Friends for a school chum who had a birthday coming up or LEGO Star Wars for himself) by holding the boxes of each alongside his ears -- but she was almost in tears.
“It only takes an instant,” she whispered. Her hand lightly pressed my arm.
“Do they know they shouldn't go with strangers? Do they know what to do if someone grabs them?”
Noticing me talking to the lady, my son hop-skipped in our direction. My daughter, already clinging to my side and to a periwinkle helmet with reflective swirly bits drew her arms around him protectively. She had understood what the woman was talking about.
“I lost my daughter. … in Washington. I turned around and she was gone. I was frantic. For three days there was nothing.
“And then they found her ...”
Her eyes explained with tears the word she couldn't say.
“Teach them to scream, to bite and to kick. Just teach them.”
Up until this moment I hadn't given much thought to what-if scenarios about stranger abduction.
Oh sure, I'd recited by rote what they should do if they are lost or can't find me. Who would likely be a safe choice to approach for help: A police officer, a store employee, an elderly lady, much like the woman standing before us now.
But I hadn't considered strangers a true threat. I don't want to live in fear. I don't want to tether my children to my side because I can't shake the fear that danger lurks everywhere.
In fact I'd felt confident in my belief that Don't Talk To Strangers, Stranger Danger and other blanket approaches to rare but horrifying incidents of stranger abductions were completely wrong-headed.
“We have to talk to strangers,” I've told my kids. “You may find yourself in a situation where you need help and you can't always wait until you see someone you know. … But the trick is to understand what IS danger.
We go over that, too. “Adults you don't know won't need a kid's help for any reason. If they lost a puppy, they'd call the animal shelter. If they had car trouble they'd call a tow truck. Beware of strangers bearing gifts and all of that. And remember if there was an emergency, believe me, we wouldn't send someone you've never met before. So Never. Ever. Go with a stranger. Anywhere.”
They repeat after me: “Don't ever go anywhere with a stranger.”
“Adults don't need kids' help.”
“Mom will find me. She won't send someone I don't know to look for me.”
I can tell from their eyes and robot voices they probably won't remember any of it should a really, really nice person tell them he lost his dog.
“What do you do if someone tells you they're going to take you to see me?”
“I'll tell them My mother wouldn't send a stranger to get me. ...”
“No. That's what you THINK. Don't reason with them. Don't tell them anything. Just say NO! Loudly. And then find a policeman, a store employee or an elderly woman.”
“So … Don't talk to strangers then?”
“In that situation … where you're just minding your own business and someone comes up to you with a story about how they're supposed to take you to me … No. Don't talk to them.
Two blank stares headed my way, tell me the lady was right.
It only takes an instant for a lifetime of regret.
“If someone tries to grab you, scream, bite, kick and run.”
They seemed happy with than answer. For the rest of the afternoon they practice on their own with forceful “Nos,” “Hiyahs,” and “You're NOT my Mothers.”
As I watch by kids fight imaginary foes, I understand something, too: Living in fear isn't a result of hearing information you'd rather ignore, its the consequence of ignoring information that you might need to hear.