It was a blistering hot summer day at Cultus, in the Entrance Bay parking lot, and the kids were dying to get into the water.
But when we were getting out of our car, someone else was getting out of their car beside us. So, we did something that people just don’t do anymore.
We talked to them.
This was several years ago, so I’d assume we talked about the weather, the traffic, the business of the parking lot, or some other benign topic. The eye rolls from our kids were dramatic to say the least, and then they chided us.
“Those were strangers,” they said, embarrased and grumping all the way to the beach.
“Well they were,” we would have said. “But now we’ve talked to them, so they’re not.”
Fast forward to earlier this year. I was pushing my cart through a congested grocery store, and finding places to move the cart around each aisle was becoming so frustrating it was comical.
The third time I ended up in a shopping cart tango, I finally broke out laughing. The other woman stopped, smiled genuinely, and said “Oh it’s so nice to see you smile. You’re the first person who has smiled at me all day.”
It was nearing 6 p.m., and she was seeing the first smile of her day. Her reaction to something so simple, so human, as a smile was astounding to me, and my kids.
That encounter led to many discussions around our dinner table. We’ve talked about how important it is to be nice to strangers. We’ve chatted about how a smile is the easiest thing you can give a person, and that you in fact may be changing their outlook on life for a moment, a day, a week.
Positive human interaction is one of the cornerstones of a full-functioning society. After all, what do we have if we don’t have each other?
Should we all really be so afraid of each other, that we completely limit speaking unless necessary?
As you may have guessed by now, I have mixed views on the topic of stranger danger. Yes, it’s very pragmatic advice for a young child, I agree. I myself avoided abduction at about age 10, when a man offered to take me from one bus stop to the next. I trusted my gut, saw something sinister in his plain car and suburban-looking outfit, and pointed into the distance.
“My mom is coming,” I told him.
Of course, she wasn’t there, but he left so quickly he didn’t have time to check.
So, when my kids were younger, I talked about the importance of not going anywhere with strangers. But I’ve also taught them to speak to people, to speak up for themselves, and to learn to trust their guts.
And we’ve talked about the truth: A stranger is just someone you haven’t yet met.
I’m generally a pretty shy person, but as a reporter I speak to strangers all day long. I call them in their living rooms when they’re least expecting me. I tap them on the shoulder at events. I open up conversations on social media, inviting people to talk to me. I knock on doors and walk into places where I have no idea what to expect. I ask them questions and I listen to their answers and we find common ground.
And I’m still here. I have survived virtually thousands of encounters with strangers, most of whom were generally enjoyable and had wonderful things to teach me. In fact, I would not be who I am today without these strangers and their stories.
Over the course of time, my kids have accompanied me to numerous work events, from on the spot news coverage where houses are exploding in fire, to planned ribbon cuttings with elected officials. I have taught them how to open a conversation with a stranger, how to interact with strangers, and even how to trust their own intuition on who is a credible, safe person.
They trust their intuition.
They speak to strangers.
They’re still here.
Finally, here’s a scenario that played out very recently.
My eldest son, now 17, was waiting for his bus at the depot to get out of the town for the weekend. He crosses paths with a man who many would dismiss. First, because that’s what society does to everyone these days, but secondly, because the man has been affected by a brain injury and operates on a different playing field.
But my son naturally paid attention to him. He heard his story, learned he was homeless, learned he was traveling to see his mom for her birthday. The man then offered to buy my son a coffee. Instead, my son gave him a bottle of pop.
“I couldn’t take his money,” he told me later.
Later on, my son also gave him half his lunch. He smiled, he listened. And my son laughed with him and called him by his name, as if they were the best of friends.
Not at all.
Watching all of this, I realized that while I may not have done everything right as a parent, and while I would love the chance to erase my mistakes, I have raised a human being with a fully functioning heart.
“Stranger danger” may have come in handy at some point in my childrens’ lives. But opening their heart to the people around them will serve them for the remaining 80 years or so.