"I wanted to share an unsettling experience we had yesterday. My husband and I were walking our kids home on their scooters from the playground when a stranger approached us and started trying to talk to our toddler daughter like he knew her, and he got a bit agitated because she ignored him. I picked her up and started walking ahead. He followed us and then he did the same with my son a couple of blocks later. I told him to leave us alone or I'd call the police and he started to get belligerent and followed us all the way to our building.
He was a big guy, probably 6 feet 180+ lbs with his hair loosely tied back, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers. He looked totally normal but based on his incoherent speech, I think he was either mentally ill or on drugs.
I think he approached because he saw my husband walking with my kids alone (I was a few steps away), which is obviously scary. This happened in the middle of the afternoon. It was a good reminder to be aware of our surroundings, and to have an action plan when you're alone with your kids if something like this happens."
So folks—What would you do? Has this happened to you? What did you do? What would you do differently?
Related PSP reading:
Response from the police precinct:
"Call 911!!! That's what should be done."
"If you're not sure whether the situation is a true emergency, officials recommend calling 911 and letting the call-taker determine whether you need emergency help.
PSP member responses:
Take a cell phone video recording:
"It's helpful in situations like this to use your smartphone as a witness. Pull it out of your pocket and start recording, noting the time, date, place, and other particulars of the situation. If you can use an app like Firechat that streams online, real-time, even better since losing the phone won't mean losing the data.
Three years ago my son and I and half a dozen other schoolkids were nearly run down in a crosswalk at the corner of PS 295 on 6th Ave by a green cab driver who was trying to beat the light. He had been screaming profanity at the parents and schoolbuses jamming up the block at dismissal, and when I threw out my hands to stop him from running us down he yelled racial epithets and threatened to kill me and my three-year old son. I pulled out my phone and recorded the incident, focusing on his face and the number of the cab. When he realized what I was doing he sped off, but of course by then I had the evidence to take to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. It was an open and shut case. (Unfortunately the TLC didn't fire him outright as they should have, but he was suspended and heavily fined.)"
"It might not be a good thing to record via cell phone, as this might anger a mentally ill person and cause the situation to escalate... unless the recording could be done unseen."
Identify safe spaces in the neighborhood: corner deli, stores, etc:
"We haven’t had this situation luckily. But my first instinct is that if I were a few blocks from home I wouldn’t walk home with someone following me. I would be worried about the time it would take to get up the steps, unlock the door and herd everyone and their scooters, etc. inside. I would head instead (if they were close enough) to 5th or 7th avenues or another street where there are a lot of people and stores, or just to the closest open business. This way you can duck into a store if you feel like you need to get away from the person and have a safe haven to call the police or wait for the person to move on.
This is also the advice we give our child as she is starting to get more independent. Know places around the neighborhood where people know you or where the owners are friendly top kids — our corner deli, etc. So if someone is following you or making you feel uncomfortablem, you can go into a store and tell them you need help; ie: and ask if you can call your mom or the police, or let you wait a few minutes in the store or watch you walk around the block, etc."
"In a situation like that, better not to go home or indicate where your home is. Instead, go into the nearest store, restaurant or other public place, where there are witnesses and help if needed. If the person follows you, call the police. It's often best not to speak to or engage with a person in that state; if you walk quickly and ignore the person or just give a polite but firm dismissal, many times the antagonist will move on"
"I know the police are unpopular these days but from years of working in emergency rooms and in underserved areas I have found them to be great allies in the neighborhood and have often observed them treating "emotionally disturbed persons " gently and reasonably. If you call 911 they will send a patrol car to your location promptly and the cops will engage the scary person and get him to a more appropriate place,whether that be a hospital or police station or just "moving him along ", and see you safely on your way."
Assess the situation:
Its truly difficult to remember to do things on the spot especially when the adrenaline rush is overwhelming our bodies in crisis. I've been there. Having said that, unconventional things often throw people off of their game even temporarily. Are they trying to rob you, sexually assault you, mentally ill and "trying to be your friend" or mentally ill and trying to see why branches are growing out of your head!"
If it was just me, two kids and partner, in this situation I would seek to engage the person in conversation to 1) assess what they are about and 2) stop him from talking to me son/daughter. Depending on their reaction I would continue walking towards our general destination and then wave this person goodbye and go in the opposite direction they seemed to be going, or ask where they are going and then say "I gotta go this way." Alternatively, if the person remained verbally engaging and increasing belligerent or unresponsive, I may tell my partner very quickly and quietly to go ahead to the closest store wait two minutes and then leave and continue back home. During that time I would continue to engage that person however I could: 1) Tell them my life story highlighting real or fictitious woe's to engage him 2) Engage with political talk, first ask who they are voting for and enthusiastically support their candidate no matter who they were! 3) Ask them to help me find a police officer as my wallet was just stolen 4) Fake an immediate injury (incredibly painful ankle sprain that would lead you to scream and yell profanities and where you would ask said individual to call the ambulance/police for you 5) Hail a taxi or uber and go for ride, maybe home 6) if they were not truly mentally ill and perhaps just a predator let them know with direct eye contact that "speaking to kids without parental consent is dangerous and inappropriate, you can speak to me, if you want to have a conversation." And stand directly in front of them blocking their path from children partner. Obviously, the last option does take some courage and decisive action, and may aggravate some but stop others, so you would have to be sure they mean to hurt you and that confronting them is inevitable, you are just making sure that there would be one person hurt/the adult vs. a child.
Not that any of this would stop someone who is determined to assault and we should remember that at the outset because denial is often an enemy of common sense, and predators often rely on good people to be...well..good people with shame, manners and the rest. But at least the children would be away and safe.
In either case, I would definitely, as soon as I thought this person was a threat start to look at them, observe them as if you were looking at painting, memorizing from bottom to top, what they are wearing, new/old, clean/dirty, smells, tattoos, gestures, twitches, etc. in order to report to the police. As in option 1) you can start by telling them your name extending your hand to shake theirs, get their name, and start asking questions: where do they live, native newyorker, what do you do, etc.? To get information again to share with the police."
Understand whether if there is really a danger present:
"I too find this a disturbing situation, but perhaps for different reasons than the other respondents. I understand that the OP (anon) felt uncomfortable. That's real, but they offer no description of immediate danger or threat before threatening to call the police. Last I checked being agitated is legal and we have no inalienable right to be free from discomfort. This knee jerk reaction to people we encounter seems to lack compassion for others and tolerance for neurodiversity
Judging others based on if they "look normal" is problematic on two fronts. First it implies being normal is a (or the only?) positive or desirable state. Second it's based on a dangerous and antiquated notion that judging people by there appearance is ok. I don't know about you but I strongly disagree that "speaking to kids without parental consent is dangerous and inappropriate."
We all live together in very close quarters and presumably we choose that at least partially because of the opportunities for interaction it affords. We don't need permission to speak.
Of course there are real dangers out there and we should share ideas on how to be prepared when we face them. However I'm wondering if the biggest threat in this scenario is suppression of freedom of association and expression out of fear of the other..."
Response to the comment above:
Listen to your intution:
"All due respect, I completely disagree. His kids were directly involved and he felt threatened. Whether or not he was actually threatened is besides the point, and he should not be penalized or made to feel a bigot because he didn't wait to confirm the threat was real. All we have to guide us - as parents and New Yorkers - is our gut instincts, and if his said "danger", then he needed to protect his children first and question why he felt that later. I know I for one work hard to foster a sense of community and tolerance and teach that to my children, but I also want to stay safe, and riding that line is all about respecting our intuition."
Find a balance:
"I wish for a world where kids can be spoken to by grownups they don't know and they can learn all kinds of stuff that they might not learn from their parents. And I wish for a world where neurodiversity (as you say) is acceptable and people aren't stared at for "acting weird" or stimming or talking to themselves or other things outside of the norm. However, I also agree that all kids should learn how to keep themselves safe and listen to what makes them uncomfortable - and we should support all of them, even the stimmers and weirdos (!). The advice of dropping into stores in the neighborhood, making friends with shopkeepers you trust and having other place to go where they are safe other than home is so beneficial for all kinds of reasons, not just for scary situations. Thanks for this dialog."
Understanding our bias:
"On the issue of perceived threat: I'm often the guy that causes women to cross the street to the other side, clutch their purse a little tighter, or put their phone away. I'm big, dark-skinned, and usually don't wear a business suit at night. when this happens--and it's quite frequent, when i cross flatbush into park slope proper to go to the coop--I chuckle to myself because then again, whenever there's someone screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night, I'm also the first one--and often the only one--who actually goes out and does a damn thing. I will also make faces at your baby trying to get them to laugh and I'll talk to your kids. i'll also be the one to stand up for them. I haven't had anyone call the cops on me. yet."
Be wary of "stranger danger":
"People are smart enough to know what’s a real threat/“feels” off and is just someone socially awkward and well intentioned. It sounds like this person was more of the former—following a family home and not taking a hint to go away (however done) would be unsettling to most people. I was at Lowe’s today and there was a guy wandering around and standing in the middle of the road. I told the folks who worked there rather than confronting him myself since something was definitely off with him. (NOTE: He was definitely “off” although I certainly wasn’t suppressing his freedom to be “off.”)
I do agree that we shouldn’t perpetuate “stranger danger.” We should make sure that our kids know the safest people to reach out to (turns out it’s women with kids), but we can’t deny that there are people in our city who need medical, mental and emotional help that they aren’t getting. And while we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and make a knee jerk reaction, denying that someone makes us feel uncomfortable and protecting ourselves just so others can express themselves does not seem prudent."
"I think the original poster made clear that this felt like threatening behavior and it's not quite fair to describe this just as someone upset that an adult spoke to a kid without parental permission. My kids have been spoken to by many strangers without my permission and, while they often respond, sometimes they don't. I've never had anyone get agitated when my kids refuse to respond, let alone try to follow my family, but if they did, I'd probably want to get my kids out of that situation. I'm all for teaching my children to accept people who are different, but I'm also going to teach them to extricate themselves from situations that could get dangerous. Putting other people's feelings above your own gut instincts about safety can be pretty dangerous, especially for women. I read the Gift of Fear years ago and will definitely have my kids read it when they are old enough. People may feel more or less uncomfortable in a given circumstance, but the tips that other posters gave in response are helpful when someone does feel threatened, and I appreciate that you raised the topic. People throw around freedom of speech a lot these days, but freedom of speech doesn't mean that someone has to subject themselves to feeling harassed or threatened. When you approach children, or parents with children, to exercise your free speech, you may not get the reaction that you want. Nor does anyone have the right to associate with your children."
Other street smarts principles that are generally helpful:
- "Square your shoulders to appear bigger and confident, and don't show fear and act calm (even if you're feeling otherwise)."
- "Self-Confidence, Assertiveness and Awareness are children's and adults first defensive weapons.
Always phone 911 if you feel you or your child's health, safety, life, and well-being is at risk.