Talking with stranger danger

p0908 013“I just told your daughter not to talk to strangers.”

“What?” I responded.

“I just told your daughter not to talk to strangers. She was on the other side of the structure playing with my boys and she said hello to me. I told her she isn’t allowed to talk to strangers and her mother would be very upset. I reminded her strangers were dangerous and if one ever talked to her she should scream and run. You’ll need to go over that with her again as she seemed very comfortable including my grandchildren and saying hello to me.” This was all said with body language and tone of voice that assumed camaraderie, shared values while simultaneously putting me in my place.

Halfway  through her reproach my daughter walked up and stood beside me listening. At the end of her reproach I thanked her for caring enough to say something. I then let her know we do talk to strangers. I let the woman know that it was important for my daughter to know that not everyone in the world was out there to harm her and she need not live in fear, though she needed to be wise. That she was to stay where I could see her, always be polite and be intentional about including others. I looked at my daughter and told her I was proud that she was polite and friendly and she had done nothing wrong. My daughter smiled, looked at the woman and said “nice to meet you” then asked if she could go play with her new friends.

Typically playgrounds are the land of the unwritten rules of acceptance between parents. We may not agree with each others parenting styles, but it is not the place to comment. It has been a place to learn to share, to introduce yourself, to help someone you don’t even know up when they fall and in general to make new friends, even if just for the hour.

This woman was annoyed with me. She clearly did not approve of my parenting choices. Her two grandchildren kept to themselves while the rest of the playground was abuzz with interaction. How sad for them. They were being taught from the beginning that “others” are scary, to be avoided. This woman listened to me for a moment then I could see her mentally checking out. Within a minute or two, she walked away, called her grandsons and told them they needed to leave now. The youngest walked away, shoulders slumped, tears in his eyes and kept looking back. It was evident he did not want to leave.

We often talk in my home about life being like a playground. Some people effectively say, “I don’t like your choices, or the way you included others…I’m going to take my ball and go home. In fact, I’m going to take my ball, the snacks, others and leave you there with “that” person who never should have been included in the first place.” It’s a terrible way to proclaim the gospel to others and the exact opposite of what Jesus modeled but it has become the accepted norm today. In fact, it is what too many college and seminaries are implicitly teaching. Be in community with our own, cloistered and protected within our high walls, send out money and do a good deed once each quarter and quickly run back to the safety of our place.

While I allow my children a fair amount of freedom, I don’t let them roam back alleys at midnight. I don’t take them to the park, grab a latte and get engrossed in my phone. I have nicknamed my husband “Safety Sam” because I tolerate risk more than he does. BUT even he has never worried about my choices regarding our children’s safety and he, too, wants our children to care for strangers.

When did we all get so scared of each other? When did we stop talking?

As Chfile0001422462530ristians, we should know and, quite frankly, do better. Jesus commanded that we share the good news with others. This means we actually need to engage with people outside our church. It means we talk to strangers. It means that people who are different, even very different from us deserve to be treated with the same kindness, dignity, and respect as those we know. And quite frankly, everyone is a stranger at some point!

Scripture talks about entertaining angels unaware when we are kind to strangers (Heb 13:1-2). Matthew 25 declares that we will be judged for our faithfulness based on how we treat strangers. We are told through the Old and the New Testaments that we are to reach out to prisoners, widows, orphans, the blind, homeless, the lame, crippled, lonely, cheating tax collectors as well as entitled rich leaders. In short, we are to extend hospitality to ALL people and specifically to strangers.

Of course this all stems from the care and concern parents and grandparents have for the safety and well-being of their (grand)children. And for those who were influenced by all the “stranger-danger” messages of the 1970s, it is understandable that we fear child abduction despite kidnappings being both at historically low levels (http://www.freerangekids.com/crime-statistics/) and the fact that only one in four kidnappings is done by strangers (http://www.parents.com/kids/safety/stranger-safety/child-abduction-facts/). What I question here is the actions taken out of this legitimate care and concern. The response does not have to be a rejection of all strangers – “scream and run away”. Nor does it have to result in hovering helicopter parents. Attentive openness suffices.

Maybe the playground is where it all gets screwed up. Not from the children, but adults who have forgotten that we need each other. Maybe those who don’t follow Jesus will do this, but for those of us professing to follow Jesus we must talk to strangers…even when they might turn out to be very different.

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About Amy Jacober

Amy Jacober (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is a youth ministry veteran with ministry and teaching experience. She focuses on practical theology, urban ministry, theology & disability, and marginalized communities. She is a volunteer youth worker in her church and community, lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and serves on the Young Life Capernaum national board. In her free time she can be found playing with her three young children, husband, and oversized dog.