As children in primary school (for children ages 4 to 11) we walked home from school almost everyday. We weren’t alone in this, most Irish kids would have walked home from school in those days. Our house was only a mile from school but to our short legs that seemed like a really, really long walk. It was such a long walk that anything could happen and lots of stuff did, but the main event that sticks with me is when we were offered a lift home by strangers.
We were told to always walk home with a sibling or neighbour. There were about twenty of us walking home on the same road, so there were always lots of options for a walking buddy. Some walked fast and some walked slow, so you could choose your buddy according to the pace you wanted that day.
My parents always warned us of strangers who would try to coax us into their cars and if we went to the car, we would never be seen again. We were told these cunning strangers would use all kinds of tricks, even pretending they knew our parents or offering sweets. As kids we had to be smart and stay one step ahead, even running into the nearest house if necessary. Of course, as kids, we dismissed all this talk as our parents being too protective. Parents, eh?
Then one day, I was about 9 years old and was walking home with my sisters in the pouring rain. We were over halfway home, soaked to the skin and dripping wet when a car passed us by and stopped a short distance ahead.
We didn’t recognise the car or the occupants - a man and woman. Strike 1: They are strangers.
The man opened the car window.
“Would you like a lift?” he asked. Strike 2: He offered us a lift.
“Ah, no thanks” we replied in unison.
“But ye’re soaking wet. Come on, we’ll drop ye home.”
“No thanks. We’re ok.” I replied, being the eldest and taking charge of the situation.
“Its ok. I know your parents, I know where you live.” Strike 3: He said he knows our parents. This man is definitely out to get us.
“No. Its ok. We’re fine.” I replied again. At this stage we had stopped walking so that we did not pass too near to his car.
“I do know your parents.” he insisted “Dan and Nora, isn’t it. Ye are Dan’s kids?”
Once again I said “Its ok. We’re fine. We don’t need a lift.”
The man shrugged. He gave up trying to persuade us and drove off leaving us in the rain. I wasn’t fooled by that Childcatcher and his girlfriend - I had seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – I knew he wasn’t as nice as he seemed. And we certainly weren’t stupid enough to get into his car. Pleased with how we had just evaded a kidnapper, we were quite happy to be walking home again, even if it was raining. Anything was better than being kidnapped.
By the time we got home we had forgotten about the strangers in the car as we were too busy getting changed and dry. We never mentioned anything to our parents that day. I’m not sure why. Maybe after all the warnings I thought these strangers in cars were a regular thing. But the event didn’t just fade into the past because the following evening my father came home asking if we had been offered a lift. He was embarrassed that we had refused a lift from his friends brother, home from Dublin for the weekend!
There was a lot of talk afterwards about whether we should have taken the lift or not, because my parents were convinced we should have known this man when we saw him. After much discussion, the general consenus was that we made the right choice because we weren’t sure who was asking. Though my parents were mortified that our actions might have offended their friend. At least now looking back on it, we all laugh about the day we were nearly kidnapped.
I suppose the main learning from all of this is that kids do not have the ability to detect subtle bits of information in a conversation so they will stick with the overall gist of things. We didn’t realise that this stranger did actually know our parents by name – which is subtly different to just saying “I know your parents”. I try to remember this when my kids make decisions that confuse me because they have overlooked a subtle bit of information.
But all the same I still tell my kids ” Don’t talk to strangers” and “Don’t take lifts from strangers” and “Do not believe a stranger who says they know your parents”!!