By Noa Sasson
My four-year-old has a very cautious nature. She likes rules, predictability and routines. She has always been shy, so when she reached the age to talk about about ‘stranger danger’, it all made perfect sense to her. I explained that if she was ever out and lost sight of whoever was looking after her, she must look for another mummy with children and say ‘please help me, I’m lost’. She’s a stickler for rules, so it was important to spell out the exception to the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ rule.
She also managed to get to grips with the idea that sometimes I talk to strangers. Shop or transport employees made sense to her, but she was less comfortable with me making chit chat with other adults in the park or on the bus. It’s not something I do very often, but every time she bristles, I explain that adults can sometimes talk to strangers because we can make judgements on how to stay safe.
On the last Monday of term I was collecting my daughter from school, which is next to a pub on a busy London high street. It was lovely weather and people spilled out onto the road, enjoying their drinks in the sunshine.
My girls (aged 4 and 2) were less than ten metres ahead of me on their scooters. I saw them suddenly stop, far earlier than where they usually wait for me to cross the road.
A man, probably in his late sixties, definitely drunk, was talking and gesturing to them. The girls retreated a step or two, drew together. Even though I could only see the backs of their heads, I knew what they were feeling. If you identify as a woman reading this, you too know exactly how they felt.
This was not a case of stranger danger. I don’t think he was a paedophile. I think he was just a drunk old man who thought my girls looked cute and wanted to talk to them. Who ‘meant well’ but had no regard for their obvious discomfort and lack of desire to talk to him. Who was ‘just being friendly’ but didn’t care that he came off as intimidating. Who was ‘just paying them a compliment’, but it never occurred to him that they were enjoying their little lives without his validation. This was not stranger danger. This was street harassment.
I swiftly caught up to them and they drew into my legs. I did not acknowledge the man but in a brisk, perky voice said “come along, this way!” I did this so the man did not think that I had seen him and was being rude, instead giving off the impression that I was busy, with places to be, which would hopefully encourage him to leave us alone.
Of course, he did not.
“Oh well hello Mum! Come on then darling, oh go on then, where are you going? Come over here!’. Lurching towards us. Blocking our path.
With the speed of a rabbit changing direction to escape a hound, I quickly rotated the two scooters around so that we could cross the road. Not where we usually cross, as this way will lead us right into a fruit and veg stand, but at least there are plenty of sober people over there.
I say something cheery to the man like ‘have a nice day!’ and steer my little women through the traffic.
I do this instead of saying what I long to with all my heart.
“Please don’t talk to my children.”
“You’re a stranger.”
“Your actions are intimidating.”
But of course I don’t say those things. He was bigger than me, drunk and even in a busy place I still felt scared. I didn’t want my children to witness a man being threatening towards me.
(I did once confront a man in a shop for unwanted attention towards my daughter, and naturally, it was unpleasant.)
When we had disentangled ourselves from the fruit and veg stand, my four-year-old asked me
“Mummy, was that man a stranger?”
“What do you think baby?”
“You’re right darling, he definitely was.”
“Then why did you talk to him Mummy?”
I didn’t answer; I distracted her with it being time for us to board our bus. But my eyes behind my sunglasses swam with tears because I knew the answer, just as one day I know that she will know it too.
“To protect you baby. Because I was scared. Because the only defence I have is to smile and be polite and hope to be left alone. Because that is what we have to do. Because some strangers are dangerous even for grownups. Because women never stop feeling scared.”
About the Author
Noa Sasson is a fourth generation Londoner, who studied History at the University of Nottingham before doing a PGCE. Having two babies during these student years made her passionate about child development, and she was very disappointed to discover there was little room for treating children as individuals in the primary school system. She now follows her other passion of birth and babies and works as a birth and postnatal doula, but hopes one day to go back to her first love of education.