Yesterday I took my little boy out for lunch after a successful trip to the ophthalmologist.
We went to a popular cafe, both ordered mac ‘n cheese, and plunked ourselves down in a booth. It was right across from the ladies’ room, which called me plaintively.
I looked at my kid, contemplating. He’s just a few weeks shy of 4 years old, self-aware, very obedient, but has no problem with semi-verbal aggression when asked to do something he doesn’t want to. I was toying with the idea of leaving him at the booth while I made a 2-minute potty run. The cafe is well-lit, had plenty of motherly sorts seated nearby, and waitstaff constantly scurrying through the aisles. It seemed safe enough.
So I asked J if he could sit quietly in the booth while I relieved myself, and he protested. I’m not sure why, but I think he just didn’t want to be left alone. While we enjoy this restaurant, it’s not a place we frequent regularly, and I bet he didn’t feel as comfortable as he would have at our local coffee shop (where he regularly runs around the place as if it’s his second living room… and to be fair, it basically is).
Then I noticed that his seat at our booth was literally three feet from one of the exits to the outdoors. Someone could coax him out of the building and be off, just like that.
Equally shaken and relieved that this had occurred to me *before* I acted, I asked him if he just wanted to make the trip with me. He was happy with that. He waited and chattered on the opposite side of the stall, almost opened the door before I was done, and washed his hands while asking how the soap dispenser worked.
We got back to our booth right before our food came. The manager of the store–a smartly dressed man of late middle age–brought it himself, saying with a smile, “I know whose this is!” And J giggled with delight as the macaroni landed in front of him.
The manager laughed, pleased, and asked J if he needed anything else. I said, “No, thank you,” smiling, and J echoed the sentiment, following my lead. The manager pressed, “Are you sure? Not even a cookie… a little chocolate?” I looked at J, who was rather surprised to be addressed at length–the manager looked primarily at him through this–and unsure how to respond. The exchange seemed unusual to me, too–and I wasn’t sure if the treat was offered freely or if it would be added to my bill. So I guided, “Oh, no thank you, he’s already had chocolate today, so we’re fine”–which was true, as J received some after his doctor’s visit. J echoed me again–“No, I already had some,” remarkably content with the pronouncement.
“Well, ok–you just let me know if you change your mind, then. I have lots of cookies! Chocolate chip! You just let me know!”
“Ok, thank you!” I said. Then the manager left, and I felt oddly relieved.
We started in on our lunch, and I reached over to stir J’s food to help it cool off. Thirty seconds into this, somebody comes up behind me, reaches around, and places a giant M&M cookie in front of my child.
“A little birdie told me you wanted a cookie! Here you go! But you can’t have it now; you have to wait until later.”
So we smiled and said “thank you,” and despite J’s excitement, I put the cookie in my purse for later. He had his mac ‘n cheese and chips, so he was ok with this, too.
Then I sat and pondered the exchange for a few minutes while I forked salad into my mouth and forgot to talk to my lunch date.
Is this normal? Fellow parents, I ask you: would you have been comfortable with this?
Certainly it was a super-nice gesture, and I won’t turn away (most) free cookies when offered. Was this just a nice guy being nice?
We’ve interacted with him plenty before, and even afterwards, and this guy has always come across as professionally attentive, generally kind; that’s it.
But this still came out of left field for me. Why was *my* child singled out for attention? I was pretty sure others were in the cafe at the time. I remembered, then, that the manager had chuckled to himself to watch J obediently and happily traipsing after me through the restaurant to find a seat. Apparently we had caught his eye. J is pretty cute and sweet, and he does get complimented semi-routinely… but this still felt like a bit much.
Then I remembered my decision not to leave J in the seat by himself while I went to the bathroom, and I was suddenly really really glad I decided he’s still too young for that.
The best information we have on child abuse, particularly regarding sexual predators, tells us that the perp is generally someone the child and family know and trust. Someone who has groomed the child over an extended period–weeks or months. It’s usually a very nice, sweet person with a good reputation in the community. They are often phenomenal emotional and social manipulators.
They look just like your average nice guy with nothing to hide.
As I bustled J into the car after lunch, still pondering this, I remembered a recent clip of Will Smith detailing the difference between fault and responsibility. Here it is:
And that’s the thing. Mr. Cafe Manager might have a hidden agenda; or he actually might not. If I automatically have reason to suspect him, given what I know about child abuser psychology, that’s pretty unfortunate for him if he’s actually blameless.
But whose fault is this? Mine, for not being savvy enough to know which it actually is? His, for not being more aware of how his actions might be interpreted?
Neither. It’s the fault of all those actual child molesters out there who’ve given us reason to fear.
But whose responsibility is it to deal with fallout from that reality?
Mine. And the restaurant manager’s.
It’s the manager’s responsibility to educate himself about sex offender pathology and avoid anything that suggests it in his interactions with the public. That’s just wisdom in a broken world.
It’s my responsibility to regard my child’s safety and security above another person’s comfort or reputation, even through interactions that ought to be innocuous. That’s just parenting in a broken world.
A lot of people would jump on the regrettable possibility of ruining a good person’s reputation and stay there. They would forget about the other possibility–the one wherein children (because it’s never just one) are groomed, manipulated, and molested–sheerly due to the unfairness inherent in suspecting someone despite potential innocence.
But life isn’t fair. And of the two people directly threatened by this exchange, I gotta say my primary concern is for my son. Not just cause he’s mine, but because he’s a child. (Of course because he’s mine; but I would also prioritize any other child in such an encounter.)
I’m not sharing what restaurant this was or any identifying information about the manager because it’s not something local police can or should act upon.
But I’m sharing the story and my corresponding heeby-jeebies to make a point: threat or no, interactions like this should strike us as weird. Suspicious. Not to be ignored. That’s the world we live in. Maybe we’ve always lived there, but now we’re starting to realize it. And it exposes our children when we act like anything else is the case.
Is this damaging to any number of relationships and social interactions? Yes. Is that unfair? Certainly. Now, what are we going to do about it?