Stranger Danger

  "We met a nice man while we were walking the dog today, Mom."

This statement made me stomach jump. The boys had taken Coco out together for his morning walk around the block like they do every morning. I am sure, every day, they see people they don't know. But the fact that L felt the need to talk to me about it made me listen closely.

The more he talked, the more nervous I got. A man driving a white truck slowed down and told my kids they had a nice dog. That he had a dog just like him. He asked the dogs name, asked my kids if they lived around there, and said he'd be by again sometime. Maybe their dogs could play together.

In spite of our sensationalist media, I do believe it's entirely possible for a child to meet a nice adult while walking their dog. We have a neighbor who is frequently out walking his pup, Mollie, and he is very friendly to the kids. But he has his own grandchildren, and he has never done anything more than say a neighborly hello. We have other neighbors that our kids talk to, that we love and trust. Because they have earned that trust, and understand boundaries.

I could feel the bile rising. I felt my kids were being targeted, and lured into a false sense of trust. I hugged my boy  tightly. He was confused, and a little scared. The man seemed nice. Wasn't he nice?

I told him the truth. A nice grownup will be friendly. He will say "Hi" and "Nice Dog." A nice person might ask your dogs name, and so might a bad person. But only a bad person would say he was coming by again, and want to know where you lived. He wants to gain your trust, I told him. Bad people never seem bad. They always seem nice, at first.

At this point my daughter chimed in that we have a bad neighbor. She was referring to a cranky man on our street who sometimes fusses at the kids. "No, honey. He's not a bad man. He just wants to be left alone." How to explain that this neighbor, a retired police officer who wasn't overly fond of kids was a far better friend to them than someone who showed what seemed to be  kindly attention?

J told me the man made him feel creepy. I told him to always listen to his gut. Linus confessed that the man made him feel a little scared too. That was enough for me. If my innocent kids felt a distrustful vibe, especially one that they were arguing with themselves about, then I knew that something was truly wrong.

I remember when I was walking home from middle school, in this same neighborhood, when a cute blonde guy in a maroon car pulled up and asked my friend and I for directions to McDonalds. I happened to glance in the car and...I had no explanation for what that guy was doing. I saw parts of his body that were not normally on display and...I had no idea. I was horrified, but my friend walked up to the car and calmly offered him directions. She laughed as he drove away. What was he DOING? Later, we told...HER mother. But not mine. I was too ashamed to tell my own mother. But I wish I hadn't been, because I don't think my friend's mother called the police. Years later I read a description in the paper of a man caught exposing himself to young girls. The description of him...and the car...were the same. It had taken ten years to catch that creep. And I was too naive to even know that what he was doing was illegal.

We ended up calling the police to report a suspicious character. The dispatch said the officer would stop by to take a report.  J was very intrigued by the idea of an officer coming over, and made him a small bag of cookies to offer him.

J offered a description of the man. "He had white hair around this part of his head, and a bald spot on top. He was wearing a bue shirt with white stripes going down, and some buttons." I asked if it had a collar, like his shirt. "Yes. Wait, you don't think I'M the criminal, do you?"  He said he was with a man in his early 20s, with brown hair, and a black t-shirt.

The officer took down the kid's names, wanted to know if they all had the same last name. "Yes, except for my sister. She's an orphan. Her last name is Poopdeck." The officer related to me an interesting detail...he had lived in our house as a small child! He remembered a place in the stairs where he and his brother would stash their toys. Now the stairs are carpeted, but if we ever replace it, I will look. I had to imagine that the officer could see himself and his brother in the eyes of my boys. My silly, innocent boys.

We've upped the security a bit around here. The kids can only play on our street for a few days, only together. If they see the truck again they are to RUN home and tell me. I'm putting the word out on the street so the other kids and parents and neighbors know what to watch for. And we've reiterated to the kids what you do when someone tries to lure you. Scream. Kick. Yell. Stay in a group. Don't let fear keep you from the outside, but make good decisions while you are there.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope it was just a guy making small talk. I don't like feeling afraid, and I don't panic for no reason. But this time, I think I had a reason.