Imagine the following scene…
You’re standing on the corner of 225th Street and Broadway in the Bronx*. It is 8am on a gorgeous autumn morning. You just rode the Metro North down from Yonkers and are preparing to jump on the 1 to meet your sister for breakfast in midtown. You’ve got your 7-month-old strapped to your chest and are preparing to climb the stairs to the platform. Your 2.5 year old is at the bottom of the stairs — stairs he’s climbed before and no different then the stairs he just climbed up from train — beginning his ascent. You’re about to sling the stroller over your shoulder for your own shlep up the stairs.
And then it happens. A stranger grabs your older boy.
Sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? And not because of the impending 180 block ride on a subway at 8am on Saturday. Because a stranger just grabbed your child. A. Stranger. Grabbed. Your. Child.
But it was no such thing. The woman was a stranger insofar as she was not someone I had ever met and had no familiarity with beyond having noticed her approaching the stairs from the opposite direction. But she was not a “stranger” in the way we seem to have used that term since the 1990s or so, when “stranger danger” changed the way we think about so many things. She was not a threat. Or, at least, every bit of evidence I had about her said the only threat she posed was undermining O’s autonomy and denying him the chance to beam with pride from atop the mountain of stairs he just climbed.
So why did this stranger grab my son? To help. Obviously. And, yes, it was obvious.
Why? A few reasons.
- Upon picking Mayo up, she did not accelerate her pace or adjust her path. She did not “make a break for it”.
- She moved in the direction of an enclosed space with but one entrance/exit (the one we were occupying). The only other means of “escape” — the train — had just left and there would not be another one for at least a few minutes.
- She was never out of my arm’s reach and never attempted to be.
All of this said, “Well intentioned woman offering misplaced help.” None of it said, “Baby snatcher!”
And yet… prudence would have dictated me somehow stopping her, taking my son back, eliminating any chance that I was wrong, that what I thought was obvious was not obvious, and that this woman had set out that day hoping to steal herself a wee little one, happened upon us, and had a daring escape planned from an elevated subway platform with a 2-year-old in hand. Right? I mean, even if that is over the top, she certainly could have harmed my son in myriad other ways, and the non-zero but still minuscule chance of this happening would have justified — if not required! — my intervention.
But I did not intervene. Even though Mayo clearly communicated discomfort with what was happening, I did not**. Because, to me, the harm of communicating to him that all strangers — anyone he doesn’t know — is a threat to be avoided, telling him that well-intentioned people offering sincere help should be met with skepticism and resisted, was a far worse harm. So I did the opposite. When I saw the fearful look on his face, I said, “She’s helping, Mayo.” When he reached for my hand, I held it but did not pull him towards me. “Look how much faster we’re going now. We’ll get to see Auntie even sooner. Daddy’s right here. And this lady is helping us. Let’s say, ‘Thank you.'”
Strangers are all around us. Furthermore, our children rarely know which people we may know or not know beyond their purview. Whenever we bring our children to a new doctor’s office or classroom or to lunch with a college roommate we haven’t seen since before they were born, we are introducing a stranger into their life. Not a scary-threat-stranger. But an, “I don’t know this person” stranger. Do we want them to meet all these people — people who may love them or who may be charged with their care — with skepticism, fear, and resistance? No. At least, I sure as hell don’t.
That doesn’t mean I want them traipsing off into the first windowless van full of puppies made of candy. I want them to exercise situational awareness, develop healthy “gut feelings”, and exercise sound judgement. So that is what I attempted to model. I maintained situational awareness (i.e., noticed that the woman was approaching the subway before we arrived on the scene, knowing the layout of that particular subway station, observed the train departing as we approached the steps), trusted my gut (i.e., nothing about the situation felt unsafe or beyond my control, I felt in control), and made a judgement call (i.e., don’t rip a screaming toddler from an innocent woman’s hands while screaming, “BABYNAPPER!!!)… one that was ultimately proven correct.
I don’t want my children to fear the world. I want them to know that the vast majority of people they come across pose no threat to them. I want them to embrace life and enjoy it. So, in service of all that, I let a stranger grab my child. And thanked her for doing it.
*Yes, yes, technically you are in Marble Hill which is technically part of Manhattan despite not being a part of the island but it’s the Bronx so let’s just stop being silly.
** An argument could be made that I should have intervened on his behalf, honoring his discomfort. And this wouldn’t be an objectionable course of action. However, there are many times where we rightfully ignore children’s protests. We leave them at school, daycare, or with the babysitter when they insist on being with us. We hold them against their will to deliver shots. We syringe nasty tasting medicine into their mouths.