Yesterday, it was ninety-nine degrees here, so when Punky asked if we could get ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins next to the neighborhood post office where we’d gone to run an errand, I think I said yes before she even got the entire question out of her mouth.
We went inside the shop, empty except for an elderly woman, and Punky made a selection. Tired from the heat and the long wait at the post office, she collapsed into a chair at a table closest to the cash register, while I paid for two kid scoops. As I wheeled Bruiser’s stroller over to sit down with Punky, the older woman spoke up.
“Don’t ever turn your back on her,” she said, wagging a finger at me, “even for a moment. She could be snatched just like that.”
Snatched? From an empty ice cream shop? “She was right behind me,” I said, confused. I thought I must have misunderstood her intention.
“What you did was very bad,” she said. “Very bad!”
I stared at her for a long moment. Was this really happening?
“I’m actually a good mother,” I said, and with that, I turned my back on her.
“It only takes a moment!” she crowed behind me. “Just one moment!”
I ignored her, but of course, she totally ruined the ice cream excursion for me. I mean, it’s pretty irritating to know someone is sitting staring at your back and thinking you’re a horrible mother all because you let your four-year-old daughter sit down at a table ten feet away from you in an empty shop while you paid for her ice cream. Besides, I have enough trouble dealing with my own internal battles over whether I’m being too protective of my kids.
Those of us who grew up in the eighties spent way too much time learning about “stranger danger” and perverts driving around in vans looking for unsuspecting children. As parents now, we still remember the warnings about men who asked us to help find their missing puppy, the fingerprinting festivals, the code words our parents gave us. (Mine was “peaches and cream.” If a stranger ever tried to pick me up from school, he had to say the words “peaches and cream” so I’d know my mom had given him clearance. Shockingly, that stranger never showed up and those words were never put to the test.)
We pass these warnings on to our own kids, often without looking at the statistics showing that stranger abductions are pretty rare; the adults who interact regularly with our children are the ones that we need to keep a close eye on. The relatives, the coaches, the teachers ... most of them are wonderful, but you’d be amazed at how many stories I’ve heard over the years about the inappropriate behavior of this coaching assistant or that camp counselor. When I was in a very popular church youth group as a teenager, one of our youth leaders exposed himself to a group of girls. It happens.
That said, an empty ice cream shop is the least of my worries.
I had nothing to say to the woman staring daggers at my back. How could I possibly expect her to understand the illusion of freedom I’m trying now to give my daughter? I want her to grow up with the wherewithal to roam at least a little bit without feeling my clutching hands on her at every moment. I want her to grow up watchful and alert and knowledgeable about how to keep herself safe. I don’t want her to grow up fearful, as I did ... and as did, I’m guessing, the old woman in the ice cream shop.
Yes, someone could have run in there and snatched my daughter, just a few steps away from me, although I seriously doubt the would-be kidnapper would be able to outrun my screaming banshee self if that were to happen. Someone could also have intentionally hit and killed all of us moments later, as we crossed the parking lot to get to our car. Our house could have been invaded by thieves last night. I can’t spend my life worrying about random acts of horror and violence, over which I have little to no control. But I can keep my kids safe without smothering them with my irrational fears, despite the fingers that wag in my wake.