Our family was at Home Depot this afternoon and during the trip 7yo Amelia become separated from us. It was my fault, I asked a staff member a question and I thought Amelia heard me say where I was going and to follow me, but she was dancing around with two watering cans and when she realized I was gone, she didn’t know which way to turn to look for me. I was less than 20 feet away, but she didn’t know which way to look. She did what we had taught her — stay put and stay calm, because her dad and I would start looking in the last place we found her.
Surly enough, I found her curled up and crying on a shelf in the Garden Center, with no less that four adults looking on but not a single one approaching her or getting her help.
I asked Amelia what had happened, apologized for walking away without making sure she knew where I was, and asked her how it made her feel. She said she was scared, but she was also angry because grown ups were looking at her but no one offered to help her.
She said, “I was weeping and trying to be unnoticeable and people were looking at me and not one grown up came up and said to me ‘Hello Child I will wait with you until your mother returns’. Not one person came to be my helper. You told me helpers would always come, but you were the only one who came for me. You told me to always look for helpers, and I was LOOKING these people right in the EYE and they looked at me like I was dirt.”
This made me cry. Just last week, I had promised my daughter helpers would always come when bad things happened. Just last week the entire country was talking about the helpers who came to action in extraordinary circumstances.
A lost, crying child in a large store is not an extraordinary circumstance. Had a stranger been talking to her, I would not have thought they were trying to harm or abduct her. I would have thought, “Thank goodness someone is acting like a neighbor and looking after my girl until I could get back to her.” I would smile at the stranger, shake their hand, and say thank you. There was a time when we used to do this kind of thing for each other.
I told my daughter I couldn’t change how the people had reacted to her today, but that I could continue to do what I always do when I find a lost or scared child:
1. I kneel down, smile, and tell them my name.
2. I ask their name, and their mom and dad’s name.
3. I ask if I can help them find their family.
4. I extend my hand, offer a hug, and look for Customer Service or security. Then I ask another nearby shopper to alert staff, while I stay put with the child and wait for a wide-eyed and frantic parent to come tearing around the corner. I’ve been that parent. I treat their child like I would want mine to be treated.
I hope the next time you are out shopping, and you see a young child who looks frightened or in need of help, you are the helper they need in that moment.
A long (and great!) conversation followed this post on facebook. Several people wondered why Amelia, known for being independent and strong voiced, didn’t ask someone for help or approach an employee. Those are good questions! That is something we have taught our children to do.
With a degree in criminology, five years spent in criminal investigations and two years in Search & Rescue, my experience has taught me that kids who are lost and scared do not always act the way they are taught. This is why they need the helpers. Do what your comfort level allows, whether that is sitting with the child and holding a little hand until a parent comes, or finding a store employee after you go up to the child and say, “You look like you need help, I’m going to get help for you.”
Many people suggested perhaps the onlookers were acting as guardian angels, looking over her until her family returned. That is a comforting thought, but I don’t think it is a fit for this specific circumstance. When my acute and articulate child says to me, “I was LOOKING these people right in the EYE and they looked at me like I was dirt”, I don’t get the feeling she had guardian angels who were standing by to make sure she was okay. It you take the protective bystander approach, do so with a smile, please. Smiles mean a lot to scared children.
A couple of commentors brought up the Kitty Genovese story and “bystander effect.” For those who don’t know the larger story of Kitty Genovese, at least a dozen people observed portions of a brutal stabbing and rape that took place within a 100 feet of Kitty’s apartment door in NYC 1964. During the first stabbing Kitty screamed out that she had been stabbed and needed help. One neighbor yelled “Let that girl alone” but did nothing further. Kitty ran to the front of her building, her assailant returned to stab her again and rape her. She had defense wounds on her hands and arms, suggesting she fought for her life while neighbors heard and saw this go on. Two men out of the estimated 12 observers called the police, but it was too late, and Kitty died en route to the hospital.
I find her story haunting.
I want us to be a better society that what Amelia and Kitty experienced (at obvious ends of the spectrum, thank god). I want us, when we see someone in need, to ask “How can I be of service to this person?” Last week while Amelia was getting a haircut a toddler darted away from his dad and tried to get out of the door, steps away from the parking lot where in this particular spot cars (and buses) drive by quickly. I put my hand on his tummy, closed the door with my other hand and firmly but kindly said, “You need to wait for your daddy.” The dad let out a sigh of relief and thanked me very much. This morning one of Amelia’s classmates had been pushed down in the wet and muddy grass by an older, bigger student. I took the time to wipe away her tears, hold her in a hug for several minutes, wipe her muddy palms on my pants, and then offered to bring her dry tights from Amelia’s drawer as hers were now wet and muddy. It took a total of fifteen minutes from my day. I’m not an extraordinary person, I’m just a person who treats other people’s children as I would want to have mine treated. I think it makes the world a better place.
I’ve had other experiences like those told in the thread, when the parent is rude or belligerent to you while you try to help their child. Several men expressed their hesitation because of the automatic presumption by many that they are predators because of their sex. I emphasize with that concern, and find it unfair that one half of our society is considered a potential threat.
The fear of rejection or being on the receiving end of rudness from a (probably) embarrassed and scared parent doesn’t stop me from doing the right thing. As grown ups we can handle a little rudeness and rejection. What I wouldn’t be able to handle is the knowledge that something happened to a child (or anyone) when I could have easily stepped in to help.
Be a helper.