Put bluntly: Why are so many people who live in nice places scared of their neighbors?
Over the weekend, an alert reader of The Little Grape brought a post from Boston's ever popular GardenMoms to my attention. The poster, mom to a girl pushing two, was concerned by other parents striking up conversations with her at the playground.
After I finished smacking my forehead in disbelief I took a deep breath and read the replies.
The original poster had a second question about bigger kids plowing down toddlers, which a handful of moms addressed. To their credit, the responders who weighed in on the politics of yelling at other people's amok offspring pretty much ignored the inane stranger danger question.
A few things hit me as I considered the woman's fears.
First, it must feel debilitating to live in a surreal bubble wherein every person you don't know is a child abductor/exploiter/torturer/killer. And a ballsy baby killer at that - I would assume the average opportunistic child victimizer doesn't engage you in smalltalk about the rain and the Red Sox before spiriting away your kid.
Also, how is it possible that an educated adult can't trust her ability to read people and situations to the extent that she feels unable to handle idle chit chat around the sandbox? Thinking ahead: Kids model mom's behavior. Does she really want to raise her daughter into a teen or adult who jumps at every shadow and crosses the street to avoid every passerby?
I'm pretty sure the police would tell you that most child killers aren't other frazzled moms of toddlers, prowling the jungle gym to swipe someone else's darling. Law enforcement professionals will also tell you that neighborhoods where people know their neighbors experience less crime. Humans, despite our reclusive impulses, remain herd animals. In the best manifestation of this basic phenomenon, the group looks out for the whole.
One of the best and easiest things this nervous nellie of a mom could do for her security is the one thing she's hellbent on avoiding: getting to know some of her neighbors.
My second thought upon reading the original posting was, how on earth high is this woman's boredom threshold?
I'm going to say something un-pc: playing with babies and toddlers all day, every day, is not all that exciting. Watching the Grape push around some dirty broken truck in the sandbox for hours is, frankly, less than riveting. And I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. Plenty of stay at home moms have told me they love being home with their kids, but though the weeks fly by, sometimes the days drag on forever.
I was super lucky to have mommy friends before having the Grape, but for a lot of women, and certainly for most stay at home dads, the big shocker of parenting a small child is that it's isolating. Painfully so at times, particularly for those of us accustomed to lots of adult interaction.
I can't imagine not talking to other parents on the playground. Have I met my best friends there? No. But it's nice to be on a hi-how-are-you basis with many of the neighbors. And it's never crossed my mind that the other moms might view me as a threat to their children's persons. Paranoid mamas, rest assured: the Grape is all the toddler I need.
The third thought to cross my mind while considering her fears was: Have we reached a point where we're hard wired to assume strangers mean harm? To accuse first and ask questions later? I'd like to believe it's still okay for a parent to step in to save another's child from imminent harm. Without incurring wrath, questions or blame.
Years ago, on the beach in Italy, the unusually strong surf knocked a wading toddler underwater right next to me. I grabbed her arm and fished her out before her parents (sitting about three yards away) realized she was in trouble. They thanked me profusely while their three-year-old girl coughed up a surprising volume of salt water.
It says something not very nice about our society that I think many parents, gripped by irrational suspicion, wouldn't be as gracious. And that fear of good Samaritan backlash would stop reasonable adults from acting when they see a child in a perilous situation.