Had the strangest experience today. I was taking a walk with my wife and daughter when I noticed a little boy, apparently walking down the street all by himself. Julia and I, as well as several other pedestrians, couldn’t help but look after him again and again to see if he was catching up with someone, or if he was just going back to his nearby yard. After he’d listlessly covered half a block, I got this sinking feeling that if we didn’t make sure everything was cool, this could easily be one of those things we’d see on tomorrow’s evening news.
Top story: Missing child, pleading parents, a poorly enlarged family photo, a tiny reward and little hope. I didn’t want to be the guy to call in and say, “Well, yeah… we saw him just walking along,” then have to explain why we let him go on alone.
Needless to say we decided to turn back and catch up with him.
His name was Jordan, he was four years old and he didn’t know his last name or address. I’m not sure how much I knew as a four year old, so I’m not judging or anything, just stating the facts. When we asked if he knew what direction his house was, he didn’t want to answer, nor did he really respond to many other questions at first, he just kept meandering in the same general direction. At the same time, I didn’t get the sense he’d been taught not to talk to strangers, just that he was upset. When we asked where he was going, he shrugged, so I asked why he left.
“Cause no one’s there,” he replied.
“No one, not even a baby sitter?”
“No, and I threw up in the bathtub.”
“Oh…” I was stunned, I needed time to think.
He stopped for a moment, said “I’m going to get chocolate.” And he said it quite matter-of-factly, as if we could come if we wanted, but that’s what he’d decided to do.
So we went along. Julia and I walked with him to the store another block away and bought him a Reese’s to keep in one general area long enough for the police to show up and sort it all out, and that’s sort of what scared me.
All my wife and I had to do to get this four-year-old to hang out and talk for a few minutes was buy him a Reese’s. As evasive as he’d acted in response to any other questions we asked, candy was all it took to hold his attention. We found out more and more about him once we’d earned that trust.
I couldn’t help looking at my own daughter, four months old in the stroller, and worrying already that someday she might wander off, even for a moment, and some stranger with worse intentions might run off with her. I mean, we’d certainly never leave her home alone, but just the idea of how easy it was to gain this child’s trust was staggering.
By the time the police were there, Jordan was interested enough in the squad car to stay put. If you think candy holds a kids attention, try showing them police-issue riot gear. He was enamored. It also sounded like the officer was comparing his appearance to a description they’d just received for a missing child, so at least his parents were finally home. Part of me hoped the officer would have a stern word for the parents, but another part of me wondered how worried the parents had been, how long they’d known their boy was gone, and how relieved they would feel seeing him again.
Now, I don’t feel like trying to make some spiritual point out of all this. I’ll leave that to all you read-between-the-lines types. But I feel like this totally changed something in me. Maybe the way I look at parenting. Well… obviously the way I look at parenting, that only makes sense. But there’s something else, something I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it just struck a chord with me that we might have been the one thing between this child and a real creep in a grey panel van another block away.
I don’t know how to wrap this up, either. I’m still a little unsettled. I know he made it home safe, but there must have been eight other people in the vicinity who were content to be curious for a moment but eventually walked away. It makes me anxious. I mean, how am I supposed to raise my daughter in a world full of people that I don’t trust to do the right thing?