In parenting, as with life in general, timing is everything. How do we know when they're ready to climb a ladder by themselves or go on their first unaccompanied playdate? Those tend to be fairly easy to suss out. The harder ones are the "talks." The "talks" where you try to impart some crucial life lesson. Crush the sea turtle in Finding Nemo may have said it the best, "You never really know. But when they know, you'll know. You know?"
My three and a half-year-old daughter, Bonnie, is one of the friendliest, most gregarious kids you could meet. She happily introduces herself to everyone she meets: "Hi! I'm Bonnie and this is my brother, Clyde. I'm three-and-a-half and he's one. He's having a Toy Story birthday party and I'm going to have a Max & Ruby birthday party. Do you know Max & Ruby? Did you know that our cousin's having a baby girl?" And on, and on, and on. Every cashier who's scanned our groceries knows that the ice cream's for daddy, the coffee is for mommy, and the Miralax helps Bonnie's poops. She's so friendly and so clearly delighted to talk with people that most people happily chat back with her and walk away knowing a whole lot about our family.
Her openness and willingness to make friends with everyone big, small, and canine delights me to no end. Lately though, I've started thinking about Stranger Danger and wondering when I need to have that talk with her.
I've been going back and forth about this for awhile. Then, the other day at the park, something happened and she knew and then I knew. More accurately, she really didn't know, which is what made me know, you know?
As a mother of two young toddlers, the main goal of a trip to the park (aside from wearing them out so they'll sleep well later) is just to keep everyone alive until we get home. This means that Clyde (who's only 1 1/2) gets most of my attention, as he's at the age where he'll try to walk off 6 foot ledges and attempt feats well beyond his skill level. Therefore, Bonnie, being a bit older, gets more free rein.
Back to the "telling" aspect of this trip to the park. Bonnie met and befriended a little girl her age and they were happily playing. I was at a different play structure catching Clyde as he delightedly stepped off the platform (not checking to see whether I was there to catch him or not, but that's neither here nor there). Then, the park started to fill up and more families arrived, including some grandparents. Their charge joined in the activities with Bonnie and her new pal. Both grandparents started talking to all of the kids. Before long, I could hear enough of the conversation to know that this grandfather knew a fair amount about our family structure already. Then I heard it - she called him "Papa." Yes, this was obviously what his grandchild called him and Bonnie had just picked up on it. But it made my blood run cold. It made me realize that she could and would so easily go off with anyone who was friendly to her and mentioned candy, a puppy or any of the other stereotypical "lures" predators use on small children. Now, I'm sure this man was simply a nice grandfather but he could have been someone else, someone who wasn't just a nice grandfather.
This incident has reaffirmed the timing. The timing is now. Now I just need to work on the messaging. This is one of those balancing act talks. How to caution her without scaring her? How to make her safe without losing her delightful childhood innocence? How to let her know it's okay to talk to strangers - just not too much? I'd hate for her to lose her sense of innocence and the feeling that everyone's a friend she just hasn't met yet. The thing is, not everyone is a friend. Some people are dangerous and others are just rude.
My daughter is rarely without me and her opportunities to encounter someone outside of my supervision are limited, at best, but they always say it can happen oh, so quickly. The other aspect of having to introduce the Stranger Danger concept that I'm struggling with is that it's just one more sign my baby's growing up. Introducing this concept will be her first lesson in the ways of the world and thus the loss of her first bit of innocence - and that's sad for me and for her. I'd like to put her in a little, plastic hamster ball where she could safely navigate the world from but I know that's not realistic. They don't make them in her size. I checked. So for now, I'll keep an even closer eye on her and work on finding the right words and hopefully the right book to help her understand that while the world is generally a good place, we still have to be careful.