I really love running errands with LB. Whether it’s a trip across town or a quick jaunt to the grocery store over the hill, he’s my favorite travel companion. Sure, he occasionally has an “off day”, but he’s two. I’ll take the rare tantrums, because he’s delightful otherwise. That, and I can’t leave him at home alone.
I treat each of these little expeditions as an opportunity to bond, but also as an opportunity for me to teach him about the world around us. At the grocery store, for instance, I can teach him about colors, shapes, commerce, and a lot more. He’ll start asking me a million questions one day real soon, and I want to lay the groundwork that I’m always willing to give him meaningful answers. I’m very proud that he trusts me right now to know what the heck I’m talking about, because someday he won’t.
Recently, while at the grocery store (this particular store is a relatively new suburban utopia for area shoppers), I put LB in one of those cool race car shopping carts, and pulled up to the deli counter. I placed my order and waited while the clerk did his thing. As we’re waiting, an employee of the store approaches us and grins at my son. “Where’s your smile?”, the employee inquires. My son was visibly suspicious (I’m proud to say that’s his default setting), but he didn’t appear scared or upset. The employees at this store are really pretty friendly, so this kind of interaction isn’t out of the ordinary. Then the employee came in closer and said, “Oh, is your smile under here?” – and lifted my son’s shirt an inch and tickled his side. To this, my son remained stone-faced. I was uncomfortably frozen in a state of confusion. The tickle was over in the matter of a second, my son then smiled, and the store employee laughed before bidding us a good day and moving along.
I looked at my son. He seemed fine, albeit a bit befuddled by what just happened. On the other hand, I was really confused. And angry. I was angry that a stranger had challenged my instincts about when or how to intercede in a situation like this, and I had failed, right in front of my child! On a base level, somebody he didn’t know walked right up, put their hand under his clothing, and touched him. And his dad just stood there like a chump while it happened. I feel like a chump all over again, just seeing it in writing. A stranger tickling my child should have gotten an immediate negative reaction out of dad, right?
Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t reveal the gender of the employee. I did that on purpose to leave it momentarily to your imagination. Is it less threatening if this sort of attention comes from a woman vs. a man? In my lizard brain, yes. A thirty-five year old woman is less threatening than a thirty-five year-old guy when it comes to stranger danger. It’s ingrained in my subconscious that way. Decades of news reports, after school specials, and the terrifying “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes put it there. Logic tells me that men or women can be predatory, but in that split second, my brain goes to old programming. I could also easily attribute my lack of immediate reaction to my perception of this employee. The fact that it was a woman in her thirties, with whom I had a couple of friendly customer/employee interactions within the last month, accounts for something. I’m sure I was also a bit more at ease because she was on the job in an industry where being friendly to customers is important. We were surrounded by other people, and I’m inches away. And statistically, aren’t the biggest threats to my child going to come from way closer to home?
But does a two-year old process on a situation-by-situation basis? To my son, wasn’t this person just a stranger, who walked right up, lifted his shirt and touched him without his permission? Man or woman, grocery store or neighborhood park, isn’t it the action – and my lack of reaction to stop it – that may have read as, “this sort of thing is o.k.”?
In the moments after the store employee walked away, those were the thoughts in my head. I thought, “how dare you just stroll up, touch my child, put the onus on me to react in the perfect parent way, and then walk away?”
So, it would seem, a great time to begin teaching my son about unwanted touches, and how to say “NO!” (and that it’s alright to do so when he’s uncomfortable in any situation). It’s also a great time for me to remember to validate my kids’ feelings – to read their emotions and act on their behalf when things like this happen so that they trust me to do so in the future. I want my kids to know that if given the choice between making a stranger momentarily uncomfortable by telling them not to touch my child, or making my child uncomfortable by not telling the stranger to stop – my children will always win.
If you’re interested in tackling the subject, start with the American Academy of Pediatrics tips for Preventing and Identifying Child Sexual Abuse.