So I Let My Daughter Play With a Stranger at the Beach. And Then Learned This.

My misguided fear about my child interacting with strangers led to a heartwarming discovery.

july aug 2015 give a girl a fishKeith Negley for Reader's Digest

“We are good moms,” I said to my friend, as we sat on our very fancy beach chairs, under our very sturdily stabbed-into-the-sand beach umbrella and watched as our girls played in the surf.

In fact, I felt like an extraordinarily good mom on that summer morning—I’d woken up early, made a picnic lunch, herded my three- and five-year-old daughters into the car, driven to my friend’s house, packed her and her three- and five-year-old daughters into the car, and driven the hour and a half to the New Jersey Shore, where we unfurled our towels on the beach by 10 a.m.

Out of nowhere, the girls took off running. About 50 yards from us, a man—maybe in his late 50s—was fishing with gigantic poles that looked like they could hook Jaws. The girls stood next to him and watched with their little mouths hanging open as he cast the lines. He smiled at them. They ran back to us—all except my three-year-old, Drew. Instead, she plopped her red-and-pink-flowered butt next to the white bucket where the man was probably planning to put the fish that he caught.

My brain immediately shot into Mama Bear mode: child molester. Pedophile. Felon.

“Drew! Come here! Play with your friends!” I yelled, very aware that my speeches about not talking to strangers weren’t working. It seemed like all parents heard anymore was stories about abductions, Amber Alerts, two-year-olds found dead on train tracks. Good moms should be wary. Good moms should teach their daughters that the world is a dangerous place. So I felt relieved when Drew trotted over to me and grabbed a shovel. Then she looked me square in the eye: “I want to be with man.”

july aug 2015 give a girl a fishKeith Negley for Reader's Digest

She ran back, sat down next to him, and started digging.

I watched them like there was a hidden camera in the lifeguard chair filming the man for America’s Most Wanted, every few seconds darting my head toward my five-year-old to make sure she hadn’t been swept out to sea, then back to Drew to make sure there was no contact. Just a man fishing. A little girl sitting.

“What do you think she’s saying to him?” my friend asked. In the second I’d glanced away, Drew had started talking. Her mouth was moving at warp speed. She was probably telling the man where we lived and how her father was away on business and how her mother sometimes let her ride bikes with her sister in the driveway alone. He nodded. She kept talking. He nodded again, then laughed. She laughed.

A few seconds later, she ran back to us, waving something very shiny and slimy.

“Look, Mommy! A fish!”

“A what?” I recoiled.

“A toy fish!” It was, indeed, a toy fish—yellow and rubber and covered in gold sparkles. This must have been what he was using for bait. And he’d given it to Drew. The three other girls were impressed, and they didn’t try to hide how insanely jealous they were. They all lunged for the fish. Drew looked at me for help, then at the man, then back at me.

“My friend gave me that fish!” she protested. The sand in front of the umbrella turned into a preschool cage match with a yellow rubber fish flipping through the air. Tears were fast approaching. I felt like I might cry myself. I tried to confiscate the fish, but that merely increased the volume of the tantrums-in-waiting.

Suddenly, there he was: the man, standing right next to us. He was holding three more rubber fish. He handed them to each of the girls. By their faces, you would have thought he was actually the really cute Jonas brother. “Thank you,” they said, without prompting.

“Thank you,” I said, realizing that yes, there is evil in the world … but there also is good, and kindness in strangers, and lessons for mothers to learn that only three-year-olds could teach them. The man half-waved at us and walked back to his poles.

Copyright © 2010 by Vicki Glembocki. Quest for Kindness (September 2, 2010), aliciabessette.com.

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