Stranger danger

Life in Vienna is very, very safe.  Even though it is a major capital city, crime here is minimal.  Bikes get stolen a lot.  Homes get broken into when people are away on vacation.  Pick-pocketing is not unheard of (but not as frequent as the legions of reverse-backpacking-wearing tourists seem to fear).  And that’s pretty much it.  Muggings, assaults and other violent crimes are very nearly unheard of.  Children take public transportation alone, often as young as about 8 years old.  Groups of young girls walk dark streets safely late at night.  I’ve never been in a situation in Vienna where I feared for my safety.

Coming from the US, this was a complete culture shock for me.  Even living in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, I always made sure to park under a street light and check my surroundings before getting out of my car and walking the few yards to my front door.  So I still have to remind myself to not be horrified when I see a little boy, barely older than Benjamin, get on an U-Bahn completely alone.  I’m softening, living in Vienna, though.  I don’t worry much about which neighborhood we venture into at night, and I could be pick-pocketed in a heartbeat if someone tried.  (Visiting Rome and Paris were both very stressful for me because I’ve gotten out of the habit of being constantly vigilant, and we really had to be while we were there.)

But still.  I’m a mom, and I want to protect my kids.  And every so often you hear that someone tried to abduct a child or might have been trying to abduct a child or maybe was just talking to a child but you never know.  The way journalism works here compounds my lack of clarity over things like this.  Vienna has two free daily papers which I often find discarded on seats of the U-Bahn and which are just barely not tabloids and which do like to be as overly dramatic as possible (think “The Daily Mail”), an English language online newspaper that updates their headlines every few months (not joking), and other, more typical and respectable newspapers that I never see.  So it’s hard to tell.

We’ve talked some to B, and a very little to Liam, about “stranger danger”.  We felt like we had to have some kind of talk with them about it since they’ve been out in the city on field trips starting at 3 years old.  It’s so hard to talk with them about it.  Trying to instill the requisite caution without terrifying them or destroying all faith in humanity has been tricky, especially with B, who has always been sensitive.  (Liam’s response is usually that he’ll scream at/bite/kick/punch them if they try to talk to him.  And I believe him.)

So when I found out that B’s class was doing a unit this spring about “not going with strangers”, I was worried.  I thought he might come out of it totally freaked out about life and people.  But I also know that it’s important, and his teachers can give him something I can’t — good information about what to say and do In German.  If someone approaches him, I want him to scream, run, fight, WHATEVER, and I don’t want him to freeze because he gets stuck trying to respond in German and doesnt know what to say.

So, they started.  And I kept an eye out for signs of worry or trauma — sleepless nights, nightmares, general worry — and I was prepared to answer any questions he might have.  But none came.  He seemed fine.  Not worried or anxious.

The weeks went on, and I still saw no worry or stress in him.  I asked him about it, and he replied, very matter-of-factly, that they were learning to say “Stop!” if someone tried to get them to go anywhere, and that they shouldn’t go off with anyone, even if that person had a picture of a dog or said they knew their mom or dad (all good information).  He seemed to really be learning, and to not be freaked out at all.

Yesterday, B’s class hosted a party for all of their families, and, as part of it, they put on a series of skits to show us what they have learned about strangers.  We all went to watch.  Again, I was a little anxious that it would be scary or traumatic (to the kids or the parents), but it wasn’t.  The kids were very good at demonstrating what they’d learned, and so proud to show us all.  B played the part of a kid whose playmate gets dragged away by a stranger — it was his job to go tell the “mom” what happened.  The kids were very confident and full of smiles.  I don’t know how the teachers did it, but they managed to make the whole thing very positive and empowering.  I am truly impressed.  (And, of course, I think B was amazing and impressive.  I am so proud of him for how happily and confidently he exists at his school in a language he’s still just learning to speak!  He did GREAT!)

And then, after the performances, we all gathered for cake that the kids had made themselves.  We had a great and fun afternoon.  I am so proud of my boy for learning so much and for being so grown up, and I am infinitely grateful to his teachers and the magic they manage to work with these kids.

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