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Stranger Danger for Parents
I had noticed the smartly-dressed older gentleman (think boat shoes, khakis, and Barbour jacket) sitting among the kids on the jungle gym when we first arrived at the playground. I figured he was someone’s granddad. How cute! Over the next 45 minutes, as I played with my toddlers in the sandbox, the man continued to sit there with kids playing all around him. It dawned on me something might be off when I realized I hadn’t seen anyone engage him the entire time we were there – no child, no adult. Usually at a playground you can match kid with parent/nanny/ responsible adult fairly quickly, right? When not playing with our children, we are sitting nearby on benches with snacks and sippy cups and only occasionally checking our phones. We are constantly looking up. Not this guy. I could match every kid at this small playground (there were perhaps 10 others) with a family, and this man did not seem to belong to any of them. What was he doing here? Did he suffer from Alzheimer’s? Dementia? Or worse? My kids were getting cranky and it was time for us to go home for naps. Instead of continuing to wonder about the man, I put my toddlers in their stroller and left. I just left.
My decision haunted me the entire walk home. What if this guy were a danger to children?
Like a lot of women I know, I suffer from “good girl” syndrome – my parents raised me to be polite, to do what I was told, to get along with people. I hate that I probably didn’t confront “grandpa” at the playground out of a very misplaced sense of politesse. I know if he had looked more sinister – whatever that means, maybe a trench coat? Younger? Disheveled? I would have done something, but what exactly? What are parents supposed to do in a situation like this?
After talking about the incident to my partner, sister Amy, and my friend Lisa, also a mother of twins, I realized I simply could have approached him and asked, in a friendly enough fashion: “Which is your little angel?” Or something along those lines. Maybe he did have Alzheimer’s and needed someone’s help. Or maybe it was something creepier and I could have called the police.
A few weeks later, my kids and I were at a different playground in the city, and I noticed another man seemingly without children sitting alone inside the playground’s gates. This time the man wore a big parka with a fur-trimmed hood pulled over his head, even though it was a sunny, warm day. He sat at the far end of the playground, on a bench, and looked down at his cell phone the entire time. No kids came near him. I kept an eye on him as I played with my own kids and after about an hour, I decided I would approach him – one parent to another, right? He would understand…
I left my sister playing with my kids and told her what I was planning in case anything happened. As she watched, I walked over to the man and asked him which kids were his. He was immediately defensive and essentially told me it was none of my business. When I persisted, he asked who I was. I might have said I worked for the Parks Service and when he asked to see my ID, I might have said I was undercover! OMG. What was I doing???
Luckily, I have a good poker face (not) but I knew my sister was watching and would get help if I needed it, so I did not back down. He finally got up and walked me over to the other side of the playground where his what looked to be 12- and 13-year-old son and daughter were playing. They saw us and looked up quizzically as we approached. “Dad?” they said. I smiled at them and said “hi” and then turned to their dad and said: “I hope you can understand my concern. You know, one parent to another.” He nodded, and while he didn’t appear angry at me, he was still definitely confused. I returned to my sister and kids and said: “Let’s get out of here!” Oh, brother!
What did I learn? You know, I honestly would do it again. There’s a national organization I love called Darkness to Light that seeks to protect children from sexual abuse by educating adults on how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to it. They place responsibility for protecting kids squarely on adult shoulders, where it should be. For more information and tips on protecting not just your children, but all children, please check out their website: http://www.d2l.org
Helen Smolinski is a mother of young twins and once sat behind Madonna at a movie.