"Hey, did you lose your mom?" one of my co-workers was talking a little boy about four years old. His brown eyes were wide and scared, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car in the inky blackness of night. Just a baby, really. He backed up slowly, looking around him at the other shoppers, carts, and produce.
"Hey, it's okay, I work here. See? This is my name tag. What's your name? Come to the desk with me and we'll help you find your mom." The store was full of people, and in the parking lot, one would be lucky to find a parking space.
I glanced up from my cash register over the carts full of fruit and veggies, the moms with the screaming kids, and the old ladies. The little boy's eyes caught mine and for a second I saw his fear.
Then he bolted out of the store through the huge sliding doors and directly into the path of the traffic in the parking lot.
Three staff members threw themselves out that door, one directly in the path of a car, to grab the small child as he ran like a frightened deer. Only this little boy had no idea where he was going. Hoisted like a sack of potatoes, two grown men hauled him back into the store to the customer service area while he kicked, bit, and screamed.
"You're strangers!" he cried, "Strangers! I'm not allowed to talk to strangers! You're going to TAKE ME!"
That was over 20 years ago, long before I was a mother.
Then there was Michael Dunahee, and Tori Stafford, and most recently a threat to abduct a child in Richmond.
Monsters. Everywhere. Almost makes a mom never want to leave the house with her kids.
Jake was always a chatty child. He still is. There never was any point to tell him to never talk to strangers, because he just would never be quiet. I just never forgot about that scenario, and how that little guy almost let himself be mowed down by a car because of his fear of strangers. I never liked that "Don't talk to strangers" bit. I didn't want Jake to be so afraid that he'd panic and almost be mowed down by traffic, but I wanted him to be cautious, too.
So I took a different approach with Jake. He was always allowed to talk to strangers, with Mom around. After the conversation, I'd ask him how he felt.
"What did you think?"
"How did that person make you feel?"
What I was trying to do was teach Jake to trust his gut. Sometimes, he'd look at me and say, "That person made me feel funny," and we'd talk about how those feelings are important to pay attention to, no matter who the person is. If the person makes you feel funny, get out of there immediately. We talked about how some people seem nice but really aren't, too.
That's also when we came up with a code word. Nobody could take Jake anywhere unless they knew the code. Fortunately, there was never a time where we had to use it.
But I didn't just stop there. Nope, we had a whole lesson 101 in stores and the people who work there. I pointed out the uniforms and name tags, and we made a point to get to know the staff. I showed Jake where customer service was, and asked the ladies to tell him what would happen if he was lost. We role played, even.
"Okay Jake, pretend you've lost me. What do you do?"
"I stay in one spot and look for a staff person."
"What do they look like?"
"They have a uniform and a name tag."
"And what's Mom's name?"
"And where do they take you?"
"Do you go anywhere with anyone else?"
"Uh-uh." (shakes head)
"And if someone tries to take you out of the store, even if it's the staff person?"
"grab somthin', hang on, and scream REALLY LOUD."
Years later, 6 year old Jake and I were in line at the grocery store. As Jake watched, a distracted Dad let go of his 3 year old, who wandered off and around the corner. A few minutes went by and the Dad still hadn't realized he was missing his child, until Jake was at his elbow, tapping him sternly.
"Your kid went THAT way," he pointed down the aisle towards the bakery. "You know you really should watch her better. She might get taken. Does she know about customer service?"
I almost peed myself. Out of the mouths of babes or what?