On being afraid to be helpful

Here is my column from the Sunday features section:

Every day, I see kids walking to school.

Sometimes there’s a little brother or sister trailing a big kid. Sometimes it’s a few primary grade kids doing the distracted walk that kids do, meandering their way down the sidewalk. Sometimes it’s a kid racing down the block, clearly after the first bell has rung.

I see them all year long — in various stages of appropriate clothing. Kids in ski masks. Kids without mittens. Kids acting self-conscious and way too cool for coats as the leaves start to turn.

I remember sitting at the bus stop in the rain, and I remember walking to kindergarten. So when I see my neighborhood full of walking kids, it makes me feel nostalgic and happy.

But some days, I see a kid and think, man, I should give that kid a ride. Today I watched a boy running to school, obviously late. Another day I watched a boy still seven or eight blocks from the elementary school, head bowed against the wind, making his way there.

I understand why the school district closed school earlier this month when it was so cold. But it brought up a lot of discussion at work — from “What’s wrong with people? We went to school in this weather!” to talks about how kids just don’t have enough warm stuff sometimes. Too many times.

It was all fairly predictable.

But then it turned to giving kids a ride. My co-worker talked about how her son walks to his after-care program with a group of other kids. One day he told her they all got a ride. He’s 8. He couldn’t remember whose parent it was. She grilled him, but he wasn’t sure. All the kids got in the car — and they all lived to tell about it — so she didn’t worry too much, she said.

It made me think about the many times I’ve seen cold kids walking to school, and the many times I’ve wanted to stop. Sometimes when I have both of my own kids in the car, I think, well, they would see I have two kids already, and it isn’t likely I’m out collecting kids to maim, is it? But I know how it would turn out: with a kid running away from me yelling about stranger danger and a visit from the police.

Or that’s where my mind goes, anyway. And that’s just depressing. It’s almost as depressing as the thought of a child who can’t afford mittens.

I hate that we’ve all become so paranoid that those of us with kind hearts can’t even make a gesture for fear of being labeled a creep. And I have to ask myself honestly: What would I tell my own kids?

Don’t get in a stranger’s car? That’s good advice.

We shy away from “don’t talk to strangers” in our house because what if you need one? What if something horrible has happened, and you need help? Plus, most people are nice people.

It’s hard to balance common sense with what feels like more and more stories and commentaries and devices all aimed at keeping kids safe. I want to keep my kids safe, too. But sometimes I also want to just do something nice for someone, and it’s heartbreaking that I can’t.

Or feel like I can’t.

That I’m just plain too afraid to risk it — so I don’t offer the ride.

One time when I was in kindergarten, I had walked home from school (a distance I mapped as being just under a half-mile from my house) and couldn’t get our front door open. My dad worked second shift, so he would be asleep when I got home. I was supposed to walk myself home, come inside our unlocked house and wake him up after I watched “Sesame Street.” I did this every day.

But one day I couldn’t open the door. I was scared and walked down the block again until I found a neighbor outside, Mr. Amato. Sometimes he would fix my bike in the summer. I went to him and told him our door was locked. He walked me back home, opened it for me (it wasn’t locked, but I just couldn’t get it open that day) and all was well.

My son is 5 now. He’ll be in kindergarten this fall. I can see his school from our house. Would I let him walk? I don’t know. We know a lot of our neighbors. I feel like I need to walk around the block and introduce myself, and him, to every single house, so he knows people he could go to for help — and so people know who he is when they see him.

I tell myself that’s part of knowing your neighborhood. But I think it’s really more part of buying into the fear that there’s someone creepy lurking around every corner.

I don’t see myself letting him walk alone. I work at a newspaper. I’ve read too many stories. That said, my dad had a checkered past and heard a lot of stories, too. And what he taught us wasn’t to be terrified. It was to be aware and street smart and independent.

I know he would stop and ask a child if they needed a ride in the cold. Or stop and hand over his gloves or hat or scarf if he saw a cold child. I’ve seen him do that kind of thing.

So how is it the man with the record isn’t afraid to help, and me, the woman with two kids in the car, is?

I don’t have the answer — I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. But it seems like there’s less and less of an alternative that’s allowed.

Jacqueline Palfy Klemond is the local news editor.

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One Response to On being afraid to be helpful

  1. The world has changed much in a short time – which also means it can swing back.

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