The road and the walking
Turning five

Talking to kids about friends, neighbors, and danger

My dear friend Ayesha Mattu tweeted this to me, and my mind started racing. Because on the one hand, I am an incredible admirer of Abraham. I try to take him as a role model. At every Jewish wedding I perform I mention that the chuppah (wedding canopy) is open on all sides, like the tent of Abraham -- a symbol of welcome and openness to the diversity of human experience. I love that Abraham is called the "friend of God," and I love that our tradition teaches he went forth in response to God's call into unknown adventure. I want our son to grow up to emulate Abraham in these ways.

And on the other hand...our son is four-and-a-half. I know that he still inhabits the Eden of believing that everyone in the world is loving and kind and genuinely wants the best for him. Someday I am going to have to teach him that he can't trust everyone, and that breaks my heart -- but that's a heartbreak I infinitely prefer to (God forbid!) the heartbreak of him blithely following someone into harm. How do I navigate that tension?

The Hasidic master known as the Meor Eynayim ("The Light of the Eyes") taught that when Abraham opened his home in hospitality to strangers, he was greeting the face of Shekhinah. In other words: when we open ourselves to those who are different from us, we encounter the presence of God. I believe this deeply, and I aspire to live by its light. After all, the verse most often repeated in Torah the injunction to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Being kind to the stranger is central to our tradition.

We've tried to teach our son to be kind to everyone he meets. To treat everyone he meets as a potential friend. To be gracious (okay -- as gracious as a four-year-old can be!) in sharing toys and art supplies and stickers when friends come over. To be open to meeting new people and having new adventures. So far I think it's working. He is one of the most open, sweet, and (age-appropriately) generous kids I know. Once, in an airport, he saw a baby crying and he wanted to give that baby his lovey, because he knew the lovey helped him stop crying when he was sad. I love this about our kid.

And yet I know that not every new person, not every new adventure, is safe.

I remember a few years ago taking our son to the local coffee shop (with which he was already intimately familiar!) and standing at the counter to buy some ground coffee -- and looking down to discover that he was no longer by my side. I panicked and shouted his name. "Oh, he's over there," said the barista, pointing to a table, and I saw our son seated with four perfect strangers, merrily babbling to them as they laughed, clearly enjoying his company. "I figured you knew them...?" I did not know them. Thank God, they were friendly strangers! And in our small college town, that's usually a safe assumption. But that isn't true everywhere.

In the Twitter conversation which arose out of Ayesha's tweet, she mentioned the tension of wanting to keep her son safe and also wanting him to connect with the homeless and with those in need. I know the feeling, though I'm pretty sure our son has never seen a homeless person -- homelessness does exist in our rural county, but not in his orbit. We try to teach him generosity in the small ways that we can (for instance, teaching him that the clothes he's outgrown go to other kids; that toys he's outgrown go to kids who might not have toys of their own) -- but I don't know how he'll respond the first time he sees genuine need. And I hate that we will eventually have to teach him that there are people in the world who seem ordinary but might have hurtful intent.

How can I teach our son to emulate Abraham's openness and hospitality without putting him in danger? Right now his experiences with unfamiliar adults are curated and moderated by we who care for him -- his parents, his grandparents, his schoolteachers. As he gets older, we'll continue teaching him discernment about strangers and safety in different situations. (Here's a good article about how to talk to young children about strangers.) I desperately want to protect him from harm -- and I also don't want him to lose his ability to be open to, to befriend, and to learn from people who may be different from him.

Other parents, teachers, therapists, social workers, anyone reading this who wants to weigh in: how do you balance teaching children about openness to strangers, to the "Other," with age-appropriate awareness of the world and its dangers?