02/04/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Never (Ever?) Talk to Strangers

This morning, after outfitting all three kids as though they were about to race a leg of the Iditarod, I huddled them into the minivan and drove to my kindergartener's school, the usual first stop on our morning drop-off journey. But when I rounded the corner in front of the school, I instantly knew something was amiss: Jim, the crossing guard, wasn't at his post. (Jim is always at his post.) As I inched closer, I saw other cars turning into the school driveway, the heads of the other moms and dads craning left and right, looking, as I was, for the gym teacher who supervises morning drop-off. Slowly we all put it together, signaling to each other from inside our cars: due to the cold, there was a 90-minute delay. School would start at 10.

I pulled into a parking space to call my little ones' school to make sure they were running on schedule when I saw a small pink figure walking down the sidewalk away from the school. I looked closer and saw tears streaming down her face. I put down the passenger window and asked her if she needed any help. She started to cry even harder as she nodded yes. I hurried out of the car and asked, "Can you tell me what's wrong?"

"My mom dropped me off, but there's nobody inside," she coughed. "I can't get in!"

I put my arm around her and pointed to my eldest inside the van: "My son goes to kindergarten here. Why don't you come inside and warm up and we can figure out what to do next?"

And then, just like that, a little girl I didn't know was sitting in my car.

Long story made a little bit shorter: We called her mom, but she didn't answer so I left a message. Meanwhile, a few other, older kids arrived at school -- walkers all -- and found themselves in the same predicament as our pink friend. Within a few minutes, someone inside the school must have realized what was going on and let them in. I decided that we should bring our young charge inside too. I unbuckled and unsnapped my three and started walking all four kids toward the office. En route we met up with one of the kindergarten teachers who volunteered to bring our little friend inside. Back to the car, car seats fastened, seat belts buckled, another call to her mom to let her know all was well, and away we went.

But as my brain and fingers began to thaw, I realized that I might have taught my kids an inadvertently complicated lesson. As we made our way to the preschool, they replayed the morning's adventure.

"It's good that we were there to help her warm up," my 6-year-old started.

"Yeah, it's good to be a kid," the 4-year-old replied.

"Oh yeah?" I offered.

"Yeah," he responded. "Everybody's so nice to kids."

And most people are, right? And we'd all hope that, if there were a mix-up and one of our children got locked out of school in the cold, someone would help them out. We want our kids to look for the helpers and trust those who are.

But what about the tricky part? What about the fact that not every grown-up with a van is a helper? That there are some people we don't want our kids to talk to and some cars we don't want them to get into? How do we teach our kids to be smart without making them scared?

"Lots of people are, buddy. And she was right to trust a mom with her kids at her school. But we're going to talk later on about when it's not a great idea to talk to strangers."

As soon as I figure out what to say.


Image via Flickr courtesy of woodleywonderworks.