Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Strangers and . . . other animals?

My four-year-old has been told not to talk to strangers for a couple of years now. Lately, she has been asking just what a stranger is. Oftentimes, after speaking to an acquaintance of mine, I'll feel a tug on my shirt: "Is she a stranger?"

What a difficult question!

"Yes," I answer. "But, as long as you're with Mummy, you're safe." She cuddles closer to me.

When I received the Scholastic package that I'd ordered from her supplemental Junior Kindergarten programme last week, I looked for two titles: Never Talk To Strangers by Irma Joyce (illustrated S.D. Schindler) and Don't Talk To Strangers by Christine Mehlhaff (illustrated by Kathi Ember).

I read Never Talk To Strangers first (before the other book and before reading it to my daughter) and my first impression: lt would have been better marketed with a don't-approach-strange-animals message:

If you are hanging from a trapeze

And up sneaks a camel with bony knees,

Remember this rule, if you please --

Never talk to strangers.

I just wondered how a preschooler would abstract from the pictures of animals the idea that people are strangers and that they are dangerous (especially when some of the animals are rarely perceived as dangerous and because children of that age range have difficulty defining "stranger"). Granted, it was written in the 1960s and the author laboured under different social constraints.

Still, I had just started to read when my daughter quipped, "Hey, a giraffe isn't a stranger!"

And that's just about what I'd expected. So, the intended message is constant but lacks, well, meaningful content which makes it less of a message than a . . . slogan. I guess. (Oh, dear, that's probably another post: "Are slogans meaningful?")

Mehlhaff's Don't Talk To Strangers is much more direct and it hits all the right points about stranger safety: don't talk to strangers, don't help strangers, don't accept rides from strangers or acquaintances, etc. It even includes an Internet safety message.

Oh, yes, there are animals -- a family -- but, in this book, they're friendly and they're the main characters.

Understandably, neither book directly addresses possible consequences of disobeying the safety rules and I'm not the only mother trying to figure out how to answer the inevitable "But, why?" question. I suspect that answers are produced and nuanced by each particular parent-child relationship that engages in this dialogue. So far, for me and mine, the books' implied -- and my explicit -- answer suffices: Because it's dangerous and you could get hurt.

I do hereby swear to post interesting and meaningful links about these titles. At some point.

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