I Talk to Strangers

Posted by mwallach on August 3, 2011 in Uncategorized |

Dear That’s Life,
Having been on a “Don’t talk to strangers” rampage, I fear we are raising children to be afraid rather than be warm and trusting individuals. The Kletzky tragedy was just that: a tragedy and freakish incident that was more unlikely to have occurred than being struck by lightning. Yet we all turned inward, reminded our children never to speak to strangers and certainly, never get into a stranger’s car. And although I stick to both of those rules as being valid and wise, I also recognize I’m a hypocrite, because I talk to strangers all of the time.

Aren’t we supposed to model good behavior for our children? Having never believed in the “Do as I say, not as I do” principle, I recognize and try to take advantage of teachable moments when they present themselves. However, I do not even realize how often I break my own rule, speaking to strangers all of the time. Some of my best columns come from my inexplicable need to talk to people I have never met. Even though that is not a good enough reason to keep up the practice, the fact remains I interact with strangers every day. Conversations of some length ensue, and as I am usually accompanied by one of my children, another kind of question and answer period is born. It has happened already more than once and sounds something like this:

“Did you know that person?” asked my son as I left the gas station. “No, I did not,” I answer. “Then why were you talking to a stranger?” he replied. Left with nothing else, although I am not sure it is the right thing to say, a “Because adults are allowed to talk to strangers” leaves my lips, with the hope I am believable. He accepted it as valid, changed the topic, and continued on with our day. The next time, however, things were a little different.

“Did you know that person?” asked my son. My answer was the same. “No,” I replied, “I did not.” The next question was predictable. “Then why were you talking to a stranger?” he asked. “I was wishing him a ‘Good Shabbos’,” I said, something I have encouraged my children to do as well. It is polite, builds a sense of community and is the right thing to do. Was I supposed to tell them to stop extending the same greeting when I am unwilling to stop? Not prepared to bring them up in a world where wishing someone a ‘Good Shabbos’ is unacceptable, I have not told them to do otherwise. “But you did not know him,” my son continued. I said I didn’t, but told him that not only can adults talk to strangers, and Jews can wish each other a ‘Good Shabbos’. He believed that as well.

If my kids were lost, I hope they would find someone wearing a kippah and ask for help. If we cannot depend on each other, then we have nothing. While Leiby Kletzky did exactly that and it went horribly wrong, I remind myself of the lightning. The chances of him asking a sick and psychotic individual for help was near impossible, and that’s what I have to remember. I hang my hat on that fact and continue to extend good wishes to others as I pass them on Shabbat afternoon, especially in the presence of my children. If I won’t live in fear, then neither will they.

Of course, then there is my younger daughter, whose gregarious personality leads her to warmly grab the hands of various adults, all of whom she knows to some degree but is something we discourage nevertheless. Besides needing to learn personal space, it is simply not appropriate to be climbing all over adults who are just not your parents. It has been a hard lesson to learn, because her actions simply come from her friendly nature. The only thing she is trying to be is nice, and discouraging her from that instinct seems wrong, although I am convinced it is for her own good. She has struggled with it, almost needing to remind herself to stop or resist the temptation to hug a fellow bunkmate’s dad. Working recently with her physical therapist, they passed a custodian in the hall whom she did not know, but who smiled at her regardless. After all, she is a cute little girl and it is a natural reaction for an adult to smile at a child. My daughter, however, restrained herself from engaging the adult, but then commented on it to her PT.

“My mommy said we don’t talk to strangers,” she explained, which her PT agreed is a very good policy. My daughter, however, was not put at ease. “But that is very hard for me,” she explained, “because I like to talk a lot.”

Funny, I thought. She comes by that naturally. Wonder where she gets it from…

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