No one you know

April 10th, 2008

Children need to believe that the world is an interesting and safe place. Without it, they cannot grow and explore. When we rear our children to fear other adults we truncate their growth. Human development occurs within the context of real relationships. We learn from whom we love.

–Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other

I scarcely gave the circumstances of my daughter’s life much thought before she was born, occupied as I was with my wished-for baby as the imagined end of the process. But soon, I faced up to the obvious. Here on this earth she would be mostly alone, without the company of kin. [Insert tears here.]

Not only were my husband and I older parents and she an only child, my parents were older and soon to be gone, my sisters older and far away, my nieces decades older and also far away, my husband’s parents farther away and his nieces way farther still.

But as soon as I mustered the gumption to roll a stroller down the hill into our two-bit town, I saw relievedly how it would go. With every coo, grin and bat of her lash, my baby drew people to her, perfect strangers, who filled her eyes and ears with the marvel and music of love. I saw her future instantly: She would draw people to her, and she would never be alone. She would always be loved and her life would always be full and new, if I could keep mustering the gumption to leave the house.

And this makes known my third and final ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity.

Ingredient Number 3: A Stranger

It is difficult to trust people, I know. It is difficult to trust teachers, I know. It is difficult to trust other places and even other children, I know. But when we don’t, when we burrow and hide, when we reverse and recoil, when we bind ourselves too tight to our better judgment, creativity curdles. Full and thriving, life doesn’t just depend on the new; life is the new. Life is, by definition, strange. It is always enhanced by the kindness of strangers.

But now I can see that strangers are not always strangers, rather just people with new and unfamiliar gifts. The strangers who will serve and inspire your children may well be the same-old friends, family and neighbors; those with high recommendations and faultless referrals; or they may be the untried and unknown; the teacher you most dread in the school you’re dead set against; and the troublesome kid in the back row. We cannot know or second-guess which strangeness will spark creation’s promise, only that it will. Life is forever new and unfolding; endless and – get this – good.

The stranger my daughter needs most is very often me, when I emerge from my shadowy house of fear and follow her into the bright light of an unknown world where we frolic and swirl to the marvel and music of love. That could be today. It could be any day. Anyone stopping me? Anyone stopping you?

If you still doubt the pervasive and positive influence of strangers, consider this: No one you really know was involved in the writing of this post. Or the reading.


Find out even less when you read the first two installments of this three-part peculiarity on creativity: paper and story. Or go back to the beginning and start all over again.


  1. We recently had a new babysitter – a stranger (but cleared through a nanny service). She turned out to be a god send and a champion for my son when he needed it most. Our regular sitters were busy but I am ever so grateful this stranger was at our house.

    So, here’s to strangers and to trust. The world ain’t all bad!

    Comment by Shalet — April 10, 2008 @ 4:36 am

  2. Yes.!.!.!.

    Comment by denise — April 10, 2008 @ 5:17 am

  3. You’re so right … I’ll remember this next time we’re sitting out front and the girls wave to every single STRANGER that walks by, even if they are a half block away, even if they don’t smile or wave back, even if I cringe at their enthusiasm at the scariest individuals.

    I worry most about the part that strangers won’t be kind back …

    Comment by Shawn — April 10, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  4. This has been my biggest hurdle in parenting. Yet another opportunity to swallow my tongue and let my children lead the way.

    Comment by Kristin H. — April 10, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  5. I’ve been thinking about this, too. How we teach our children to fear strangers and those that are different (either directly or unconsciously) because they just don’t have the judgment skills to determine if someone is “safe.” But we never stop that or unteach it. As a result, most grown women I know are terrified of being alone, scared to death (literally) of strangers. I myself always lock the car doors and the house.

    BUT I am doing better, talking to strangers, pushing down the fear. For a writing workshop, in pairs, we had to interview a random stranger we came across. It was amazing. I was fearless (though not alone). And strangers are very interesting – people are generally nice and good. They’re not going to bite.

    I think the world really isn’t as evil and scary as they tell us.

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — April 10, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  6. Several years ago, before we had children of our own, we went to a wedding in the Bay Area. My sister-in-law instructed her children to not make eye contact or speak with anyone they didn’t know: “Everyone is your enemy” is what she told them. Quite the opposite way of seeing from “Everyone is your teacher.”

    I love striking up a conversation with a stranger in front of our kids now, having them see that trust, openness, connections that allow us to discover the common places between us. My sister-in-law (and others, no doubt) may perceive this as naive or worse, dangerous – and that to me is the most dangerous thing of all.

    Thank you for this series. I’ve loved it!

    Comment by Jena Strong — April 10, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  7. Gorgeous!

    I promise to muster up the gumption to leave the house today!

    Comment by Mama Zen — April 10, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  8. When I was in grade school, my best friend’s older sister got stopped by a stranger on our road one night while driving home. She was kidnapped and murdered. As we lived in a small country town and I was the kind of child that sat alone in the woods thinking about seperation and death, this breach of trust in people being good was detrimental to my mental health (and I’m sure everyone else’s as well) This along with having insanely over-protective parents has left me still struggling to escape living in fear. BUT-just recently I have decided to try and conquer some of these fears and starting conversations with strangers is one of those things I have made myself try to do. I can’t say I’m comfortable with it yet, but I have felt a slight twinge of happiness from trying.
    So, that said, thanks for another incentive to keep it up…being a good example for the monkeys.

    Comment by Shannon — April 10, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

  9. Leo has been with “strangers” from quite early on as a baby, babysitters and then daycare and now school.
    He is naturally a cautious kid, not one to strike up conversations with strangers, quick to put his head down and pretend he doesn’t see them.
    So it has felt especially important that he be around other adults that are not family, to experience the world as not a dangerous place.
    And I have enjoyed watching what these others bring to him, teach him, awaken in him.
    Not to mention, I need time away. πŸ™‚

    Comment by bella — April 10, 2008 @ 8:09 pm

  10. Thank you. As a mother who was 41 at time of my first and only child’s birth, I am starting to feel more than enough worry about the issues you have mentioned. My dauther’s not yet two, but she sounds like yours–in that she draws people to her–she’s very social, such a contrast to her quiet, introverted parents. I have just finished a book of essays by writers of only children, and they sound quite unhappy (or many do) about being only children. Then when I add my age to the mix, I am overwhelmed w/ guilt.

    So to see something positive written about this issue today when I’ve spent the day worrying brings me a moment of relief. Thank you. If you ever have any other thoughts for us older first time moms, I know there are probably women who would be so grateful to hear them.

    All the best!

    Comment by Anonymous — April 10, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

  11. I’m in the same boat as you, and I’ve been amazed at how Claire has opened my world. She, too, draws people to her. But then, don’t all babies?

    It’s heartening to know I can help her find family and community wherever she is.

    Comment by kathryn — April 10, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

  12. Yes Kathryn, you’re right that all babies have this capacity. But not all parents do, and that’s my point.

    Comment by Karen — April 11, 2008 @ 12:20 am

  13. Thank you for this story. It (I) opened my heart.

    Comment by Ines — April 11, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  14. this is one of the biggest gifts I have learned from my daughter (6yo). She’s an extravert, and I had to push myself beyond my normal introverted boundaries in order that she not grow up afraid to talk to strangers. And now, check me out, I’m smiling at strangers.

    My son (almost 9)- one of the big gifts he has given me is the opportunity to reclaim my creativity. I was a very serious kid, and set aside creativity for more “practical” pursuits. Gah! What I wouldn’t do to trade two years of trying to learn the flute for two years of art in middle school. Fortunately I honored myself that third year and quit the darn flute.

    Comment by nyjlm — April 11, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  15. Thank you for putting it so eloquently. I love talking to strangers, and playing for them too πŸ™‚
    xo m

    Comment by Mika — April 12, 2008 @ 1:12 am

  16. life sure is fun with all these people we don’t know.


    Comment by mb — April 12, 2008 @ 6:28 am

  17. Thank heavens for the kindness of strangers.

    My take on the safety issue is that, especially for women, a habit of physical autonomy is much more important than being taught to fear people. If you notice as soon as people disrespect your boundaries, you’ll have a lot more warning about real threats before they are excessively dangerous. And you’ll be more likely to respond correctly than if you are taught to fear.

    There is a book from the 1970s about women’s creativity that points out how women are constantly being redirected from their own joyful creativity to some external thing – that’s why being whistled at on the street can be so disruptive, and why not having one’s ideas be responded to as ideas is so frustrating. That’s why being expected to take care of the practical details to free up the other gender to occupy their own mind and space takes such a toll on the freedom that creativity grows in.

    Having children is inherently an optimistic act, it is a paradox that our (rich and safe) culture makes it so easy for parents to be cast into fearfulness. We have children because life as a human is a great good, understanding each other and sharing ourselves is worth doing and a great joy.

    Pointing children outside the family is also one of those “effective parenting” techniques, for instance from the “How to Talk so Kids Listen, and Listen so they Talk” book. Instead of answering questions or helping based on one owns knowledge and skills, teach the kids what resources are out there (dictionaries) and how to find helpful people (reference librarians). That experience in our society as potentially helpful and enlistable in quests is quite a powerful experience.

    BTW, for all you with babies that make you feel so popular, my experience was that holding a baby makes you the most popular person present, and that trying to help a three year old through life gets people crossing the street to avoid you. So enjoy the popularity while it’s there! It shan’t last.


    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — April 12, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  18. Karen-
    This is so so true. Max’s life (and mine) has been transformed by welcoming strangers into our lives–yes even our homes. There is so much to love, so much to learn. This post has made this explicit for me and will inspire me for days I am sure. Thank you

    Comment by Meg Casey — April 13, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  19. Thanks for this reminder, as we ponder how best to educate our son for the remainder of the year, that it is okay if the new school does not do everything just exactly as we would.

    Comment by RocketMom — April 14, 2008 @ 4:04 am

  20. I am ashamed to say it has taken me a very long time to learn this lesson, I should say I am still learning it, this post helped enormously, thank you, I despair sometimes of how very slow on the uptake I can actually be! Love to you from a relative stranger.

    Comment by Jen Ballantyne — April 26, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

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