Today’s entry is meant especially for older guys. Although I’m keeping the tone light, this matter is serious enough to encourage men past a certain age to be aware of the possibility that they may be perceived as dangerous, even when they are not.
Just when we thought we were aging into a stage in life when our older-guy presence provided calm and assurance to those around us, the opposite may be true for some of us: Children and youth may think of us as unsettling or worse. (“Weird” may be okay, but that’s close to “creepy”—not an adjective I want attached to me!) Because of the actions of a few older men—and here I’m thinking maybe any strange-acting guy who’s over the age of 45?—it’s possible that the rest of us risk being categorized by young folks as dangerous strangers.
I’m not bemoaning this idea—kids today are correctly taught to be wary of strangers. There are sufficient stories of kidnapping, sexual predation and other evils to cause parents and caregivers to feel this way. Because there are just enough creepy people out there, kids have good reason to think of men as a possible danger.
Although I understand the legitimacy of these feelings, it also feels sad for those of us who value our roles as grandparents, mentors, caregivers, advisors or leaders. Kids’ fear of the few can morph into generational guardedness about most of us. We may be cut off from some kids—one less place where mutual learning and care could be taking place.
My experiences with families at church tell me to be careful when I first meet children or teens. How do I know a cautionary attitude is occurring? Certainly, when I get one of those side-glances or eye-rolls from a teenager or older child. If I sense some standoffishness or sudden quiet when I engage a child in conversation. When my well-intentioned kindness or civility isn’t received well. When I sense that teens or children might be thinking unfavorably about my personal questions or advice.
It probably helps NOT to look the part of the fearsome older guy. That means keeping myself well-groomed, wearing clean clothing, maintaining good posture and speaking clearly when I talk. Smiling genuinely. Not acting strangely.
I’ve learned that it helps conversations with children to stay safe if I err on the side of relative silence. That I listen more than talk. That I ask polite and appreciative questions. That I keep my supposed humor or whimsy toned down.
Part of kids’ wariness can occur when I first approach them. That’s the time to dial back the welcoming or friendliness to a level that doesn’t overwhelm. A simple greeting, a generic appreciative question and that’s it. Perhaps leaning in or stooping down to eye level with the child, keeping just enough physical distance.
One attitude that’s helped me to be appreciative and helpful in the face of children’s possible suspicion: Remembering to avoid my need to be liked, helpful or admired. Realizing that a child’s needs for safety and calm are more important than my hopes to be kind or appreciative. It’s okay if I’m a stranger—trust is earned over time.
When I encounter children who might see me as dangerous, it’s my responsibility not to give them reasons for that thought, and to honor their parents’ wish that they grow up safely.
Stranger or not, I don’t ever want to be a danger to anyone, especially children.