This morning, an older man, a stranger, gave a tiny bag of M&Ms to my two children that I was accompanying to school. It was so unexpected and so quick that I was completely taken off guard. No time to politely but firmly decline.
I had noticed him when he stepped on to the MAX train we were on to get to school. And by notice, I mean I heard him. He was going around the train asking people for money. I was ready for him. It’s pretty easy when you almost never have any cash on you. I typically apologize and honestly say that I can’t give them anything.
But this time was different. He walked up to us and stammered his way through his two-sentence speech. It was laborious for him to get the words out “I’m a vet.” And by the time he asked for a buck or two, I felt real compassion for this man, and was considering whether I should offer to buy him a sandwich. I started out with my own rehearsed speech, at which point he turned as if to move on. But before he made another step, he had produced 2 M&M snack bags out of his pants pocket and had thrust them into my kids’ hands.
It’s really easy to say to your kids that they should just not accept things given to them by strangers, but the next time someone tries to hand you something and you aren’t expecting it, you’ll see just how difficult it can be. It is a natural reflex to take something that is handed to you.
So my kids took the M&Ms from this mustached possible-vet that just asked us for money. I think what surprised me the most is that after asking for a hand out, he’s the one who offered us a hand out.
It was sudden. It was unexpected.
And now I had a problem.
My mind was awhirl with conflicting thoughts.
The Do-The-Right-Thing Parent in me shouted “Danger! Danger! Danger! Take the candy away! Burn it! It’s probably poison! Or meth! Run! Smash! FIRE!”
The Compassionate Parent in me replied with “Yes, but offer to buy them candy later!”
The Fair-Trade Parent in me retorted “Oh but not M&Ms! We can’t buy that. It’s not Fair Trade! It’s one thing to eat non-Fair Trade treats that were already purchased, but to buy them yourself?! Absolutely not!”
The Compassionate Parent responded with “Oh poor things. They’ll be so disappointed with not getting M&Ms. Now that they already have it, it’s just awful to expect them to throw it away. Asking children to throw away candy is like asking them to throw away a part of their soul!”
The Tough Parent in me sneered “Get over it. Life isn’t fair, and that’s a lesson they need to learn or they’ll never get anywhere in life. You get candy, but you can’t keep the candy. It’s not fair. That’s life. Move on.”
The Do-The-Right-Thing Parent shouted “YES! THROW THE CANDY AWAY!”
It didn’t help that the might-be-vet then noticed the boy sitting across from us, took one of the candies back and offered it to him, asking if he was a part of our family. The green-haired boy refused the candy, said he wasn’t their brother, and again didn’t take the candy, claiming “I’m good. I don’t even like candy anyway.”
“Yeah, right!” said Do-The-Right-Thing Parent in my head. “But, still, even though it took A LIE, it was an effective deflective maneuver. Well done. WHAT THE HECK! MR. MUSTACHE MIGHT-BE-A-VET JUST PUT THE CANDY BACK IN MY KID’S HAND! AAAAAAH!”
Yes he did.
“What a kind gesture. He must like kids!” said a quiet voice in my head.
“SHUT UP, All-You-Need-Is-Love Hippie Parent! He’s probably a creep. The candy has been compromised in some way. You’re going to need to check it for possible tampering. Have the seams been popped and resown? Is there a needle-injection hole in it?”
“Look here, Trust-No-One Conspiracy-Theory Parent, it just isn’t likely that this stranger came on the train and talked to all those other people just so he could deliver drug-laced candy to your kids, and only your kids, with you, 6 ft bearded man bear-dad sitting right with them. If his intention was to give kids drugs, wouldn’t he have more than 2 candies to offer? Wouldn’t he target more vulnerable kids? Wouldn’t he try a little harder to be charming first? I don’t know how the candy got in his pocket, or how long it’s been there, but there is no way it’s a real threat.”
Do-The-Right-Thing Parent still had reservations about this logic, and doused all the other voices with his irrational-fear-and-anxiety spray. When arguments fail, Do-The-Right-Thing Parent understands that you don’t have to know why you’re scared to be afraid, or why you’re anxious to be anxious.
And so I was torn.
Also, I may be crazy.
(Legit question: how many voices in your head is considered a normal range?)
But then again, I’m a parent, and I’m pretty well convinced that a little crazy comes with the territory. Some parents just hide it better than others. Whatever helps me sleep at night, right?
“Can we have it with our lunch at school?” asked Smunchie (6).
“No, we’re not supposed to eat candy from strangers!” shot Squigglebug (8) from across the aisle.
Not wanting to discuss it in front of the vet, I told them we would discuss it once we got off the train. Actually, I’m really proud of them: they didn’t just tear into the candy without a care in the world. They know that they need to ask to eat candy that people hand them! YAY!
Torn-up with doubt and not wanting my children to be sad, I said “We should probably throw it away. I don’t know that man, so I don’t know if it’s safe.”
All-You-Need-Is-Love Parent rolled his eyes.
My kids hesitated, so I offered to throw it away for them. That helped. The conflict left their faces and they put the candy in my hand.
As we walked the one block from the train to the school, I inspected the integrity of the bags of candy. They looked worn, but seemed fine.
“See??? It’s safe. He was just a guy that made a kind gesture to your kids,” said All-You-Need-Is-Love Parent. “You let your kids do the same thing every day as they wave and smile to each train conductor, and lots and lots of cars passing by as you walk to school. You let your 12 year old prepare an extra sandwich in case she passes a hungry stranger, and you love that your 3 year old is willing to share her snacks with everyone around her. So it’s ok for them to show random kindness to strangers but it’s not ok for strangers to do the same for them? What kind of double standard is that? Do you really want to teach them that the world is full of horrible people that only want to harm them? You don’t even believe that yourself.”
“One word! Survival!” bellowed Trust-No-One Parent – his voice is like The Argentinian’s in Moulin Rouge (I know. Moulin Rouge – again). “The world is a dangerous place! You can’t trust anyone! People don’t want you to do well. They want you to fail, so they can succeed!”
Good speech. A little off-topic, but there’s some truth in that. How do I teach my kids that for the most part, their world will be full of people with good intentions, while at the same time encouraging a strong survival instinct to deal with certain situations? How do I teach them about the real dangers of the world, and that there are certain settings and fields in our own culture where they will be surrounded with people who understand getting ahead as the ability to squash any possible competition – and teach them all this without also developing a general sense of distrust of people? How do I teach them to be independent thinkers, pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps, figure-things-out-for-yourself, street-savvy people, without also teaching them that needing other people is a weakness? How do I teach them the importance of looking out for those around them, offering a helping hand, demonstrating kindness, patience, and true empathy for their fellow human beings, in such a way that they won’t be taken advantage of at every turn and compromise their own hopes and dreams?
In all fairness, those were the questions that I pondered after dropping my kids off at school, on my way to the coffeeshop where I’m now sitting and pounding my computer keyboard.
This parenting thing is hard. Parenting brings with it every opportunity to get in touch with our younger self, to remember the simple pleasures in life, and make regular time for fun. And it also causes us to revisit all those tough questions that we filed away long ago. We get to struggle through them all over again. “Now why is it again that I believe what I believe about that particular thing?” And we get to face how smart, naïve, or just plain stupid those beliefs were, and reshape our view of the world again and again.
Well, the opportunity is there, anyway, and it’s ours for the taking. We should let our children see us grow. They think that grown-ups don’t learn and grow anymore, and they don’t have to be right.
So what happened with the M&Ms?
I gave them back to my kids.
SquiggleBug went to her classroom. I accompanied Smunchie to hers. She was putting her schoolbag away when I smelled a strong cigarette odor on my hand. I don’t smoke. Smunchie had me hold the candy while she opened up her lunch bag to throw it in, and I put it to my nose. The cigarette smell was so strong. I encouraged her to smell it too, and she scrunched up her face in disgust. I asked her if she wanted to keep it or throw it away, and she decided to get rid of it.
I had to wash my hands twice to get rid of the smell.
I don’t know what SquiggleBug will do with her M&Ms. I hope she smells the bag and throws it away too. If not, I suspect that no harm will come of it.
Either way, I plan on having a conversation with them about it on the way home. It will not be a lecture, although I will insist that they continue to check with me before eating anything that someone hands them. And I will start by praising them and thanking them for how they remembered how to handle that situation this morning.
There is a balance to find somewhere between all the voices in my head, between safety, trust, compassion, wariness, gut-feelings, rational thought, and more. It’s a balance that changes based on different situations. I’m sure that we can figure it out together, SquiggleBug, Smunchie, and me, so that they know when it’s ok to handle things on their own and when they need to ask their parents for help.
Trusting our children enough to have a voice in the conversation is an empowering act of love. This deliberate sacrifice of power demonstrates the importance of their own perspective – and the voices in their head.