Stranger danger?

My dad is a very nice man. He’s at home in any social situation, outgoing and friendly – and he loves kids. That’s all you need to know, really, to understand this story…

On Wednesday he had to take his car into the garage and he got the bus home. He was sitting on the seat where there’s a space for pushchairs and so when, a couple of stops later, a childminder with three small kids got on, he moved out of the way for her. In typical Dad fashion he started chatting. The childminder said one of her charges had just started school and my dad told her all about my son, who also started this week; he’s a very proud granddad.

While they were chatting a woman, who was sitting at the back of the bus got up and came to whisper something in the childminder’s ear, then went back to her seat. Dad asked the childminder what she’d said and she wouldn’t say. Realising it was obviously something unsavoury about him, Dad went to the other woman and asked her. And it turned out, she’d told the childminder not to speak to my dad any more – or let him talk to the kids – because she thought Dad was ‘dodgy’. When Dad confronted her, she threatened to call the police. Seriously. All because he’d spoken to some children.

Obviously my dad was very shaken and upset by the whole incident. I imagine those kids were too. I’m furious and sad that when Dad got back on the bus later to go and collect his car, he took a book with him so he wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone.

I think so many things about this that I’m almost not sure where to start, but here goes. I am a big believer in interfering. If kids are being naughty at soft play, I’ll step in. If someone’s crying on the train I’ll give them a tissue. I’ve even asked people to pick up litter they’ve dropped. But that woman was completely wrong to interfere in this situation. No one was in danger. No one was hurt, or upset. And the kids weren’t alone – they were being looked after by someone capable whose actual job it was to care for them. If the childminder had felt uncomfortable, she would have acted – it was none of this woman’s business. In fact, I’m a childminder and if I’d been in that situation I would have told her to sod off.

Probably, my dad was wrong to confront the woman, but I can see why he did it.

Most of all though this makes me really sad. I love it when people talk to my kids on the bus, or in shops. In fact, I’m almost offended when they don’t chat. My kids are lovely – who wouldn’t want to talk to them?! I chat to other people’s children all the time. They’re ace. I don’t want my boys growing up to consider every friendly person a threat or to regard perfectly nice people with suspicion. I want them to be able to ask for help if they’re in trouble. I think Stranger Danger is one of the most damaging, mixed messages we’ve ever given our kids and I’m very pleased they’ve stopped teaching it.

I’m also a bit horrified at the double standard going on here. Imagine if my mum had been on that bus, chatting to the kids and the childminder. Chances are, that woman wouldn’t have looked twice. But because it was my dad and he is – gasp – a MAN, he’s a threat? Excuse my language, but that’s bollocks.

Of course there are risks everywhere, and as parents, childminders, teachers, grandparents or just grown ups, it’s our job to assess those risks and keep kids safe. That’s why we hold their hands to cross the road, but we still cross. Why we strap them into car seats but we still drive them about. Why we let them climb the climbing frame, but stand underneath in case they fall (apart from that time when Tom fell the other way and the whole park gasped out loud – that’s for another time). But you know what’s really dangerous? Way more dangerous than friendly men on buses? Living in a society full of suspicion and hysteria, where everyone keeps themselves to themselves and thinks everyone else can’t be trusted. I don’t want to live in a world like that. Do you? Please let me know what you think on twitter @kerrybean73.

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