There's something to be said for not letting kids in on what's going on, especially when it's only likely to raise fears or anxiety.
Last weekend, an awesome woman I know had her house robbed. If this has never happened to you, be glad. Having your home broken isn't just horrible, it is terrifying in that it can totally destroy your sense of security, even if only temporarily. Someone's been there. In your house, in your room, in your drawers, in your kids room. It goes beyond invasive. However, what seemed most incredible to me was that she and her husband had managed to contain the situation so well that their four year old child had no idea anything bad had happened. Their upset, anger and fears did not overwhelm their parenting choices and their son had come through this event with his sense of safety and security intact. This must have taken a remarkable amount of forethought and self-discipline on the part of everyone in their small world, and what a lovely amazing gift to her child.
Yesterday, this came to mind at a helpful moment, when I needed it most. Kiddo and I had taken a walk to a place we call Quiet Park, which is the playground of a former elementary school that now houses a Head Start program. The park is nearly always quiet; people pass through with their dogs to the off-leash area, or use it to cut through to the neighborhood below. At the top of the park sits the playground and an open space ringed loosely with tree, but going down the hill, there are larger trees, more lush and beautiful, and at the bottom, a walkway between two openings in the fence. After a few trips down the slide, Kiddo wanted to see all the trees at the bottom, so he took my hand and led me down the hill. We stopped and marveled at a fat bumblebee nuzzling the white clover blossoms, then watched the graceful aerodynamics of a swallow or two, flying crazy and low through the air, hairpin-turning and awesome to watch. A woman quickly ran down the path, like she was late for something, and we talked about the flowers growing on the trees.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man climbing a fence a the lowest point of the park, near one of the hospital parking lots. This raised a red flag; the entrances weren't that far away, why would he go to the trouble of jumping the fence? He disappeared, then reappeared, and something just didn't seem right about him. By this point, I'd already turned ourselves around to head back up the hill to play, but something just kept nagging at me. I'd see him, and then.... he'd be gone. He was working his way up the hill toward us. We'd just reached the play structure and Kiddo wanted to play some more, and I felt terrible for saying no, but now this guy was in sight again. He'd apparently found a plastic hoop from the preschool and was banging it on a fence near the school building. I kept walking, Kiddo protesting. He didn't want to go, he wasn't done playing. What should I say to him?
This was when my friend's actions buzzed in my head. "He doesn't need to know about this weird guy, he just needs to move past the moment." Suddenly, it all seemed simple and clear: give him his two bits of empathy, and this was the right time for a distraction bribe, which I usually reserve solely for shots. "You know, Kiddo, I made us leave without giving you time to do your One Last Thing*. Thanks for coming with me. Would you like to have a little ice cream when we get home?" No explanations, just something to look forward to. My beating heart eventually slowed to its usual pace and the rest of our walk was quite fun; we got the treat of spying a crane working at the hospital, so we hunted it down and watched it work for ten minutes or so, then found an excavator too, and finally headed home to a bowl of berries topped with ice cream.
Kiddo never knew what happened, and because of this, we didn't introduce one of many of the scary things in this world that can make both children and their parents feel helpless. I'll never know if the weird guy was actually being a sketchy character or just plain old weird in a harmless sort of way. My take on it is this: erratic behavior is erratic behavior. Some people have no problem controlling their actions, some may have mental or intellectual issues or disabilities which seem outside the norm but are harmless, and I also know enough that there are some people with whom it is very difficult to conventionally reason with. I can't honestly say that even if I'd been solely with a group of adults, I wouldn't have suggested leaving or cutting a wide berth. I just knew this person's actions appeared to be unusually unpredictable, and my mama-senses said to go, so I left. That's what instinct is for. I'll never know what was really up with this guy, and Kiddo---well, he'll never know what went on at all.
*At the park or other fun places, we give Kiddo a warning that we'll need to leave and then he gets a final warning of "Go do your One Last Thing". He wasn't out of line to protest leaving -- he hadn't been given his usual transition cues, and because I needed to waver from the routine, I needed to acknowledge it.