Nova Scotia

Man offering child a toy raises questions about adult-child interactions

A mistaken report of child luring in Dartmouth, N.S., raises the question of whether adults should ever offer anything to children they don't know — or even stop to talk to them.

Should adults have conversations with, or offer gifts to, children they don't know?

Jane Kansas and Bill Wood, guests on CBC Radio's Mainstreet, say they both enjoy the company of children but don't have kids of their own. (Alex Mason/CBC)

An act of kindness in Nova Scotia recently triggered a police investigation after a man in a car offered a toy to a child sitting on her doorstep in the Woodlawn neighbourhood of Dartmouth.

The man contacted police to say he had intended to simply throw the toy away and decided to give it to someone instead. He meant no harm.

It raises the question of whether adults should ever offer anything to children they don't know — or even stop to talk to them.

Const. Dianne Woodworth of the Halifax Regional Police told CBC Radio's Mainstreet it's not always easy to tell the difference between simple kindness or something sinister.

"When we [get a report] we usually put out a release about it, as we did in April with this case with the gentleman with the toy, because we don't know what the motive is," she said. "We err on the side of caution and say: 'This is what happened. Just be aware. If this was a misunderstanding, please come forward.' And in this case, the gentleman did."

​Woodworth wasn't sure how many times someone in the city has been charged after a case of suspected child luring.

"To my knowledge, there haven't been charges in the recent past in relation to anything like this. Either it's clarified as innocent, or we don't hear anything further about it."

You don't want all children to be completely fearful but you do want them to be educated.- Const. Dianne Woodworth, Halifax Regional Police

Woodworth says while it may be tempting for an adult to reach out to a child who appears to be upset by offering him or her a ride or a teddy bear, she thinks it's wiser not to.

"You can do that in another capacity. Perhaps give it to a community group or a school or to adults."

Woodworth says being kind to a child is noble, but perhaps out of step with society because parents teach their kids not to talk to strangers.

"You don't want all children to be completely fearful but you do want them to be educated," she said.

'I think everybody misses out'

Whether to interact with children is a topic of interest to Jane Kansas and Bill Wood, both frequent contributors to CBC Radio's Mainstreet.

They enjoy the company of children but don't have kids of their own. 

They both agreed the man in Dartmouth should have thought twice about offering a child a toy from his car window because that could easily appear creepy.

"As a man, I have a rule, I just don't talk to kids unless their parent is there — or the kid is edging toward teenager-hood and there is an acceptable, necessary adult interaction," said Wood, a comedian and actor in Halifax.

Kansas, who tutors Syrian refugees, said she will sometimes say something short and sweet to a child if he or she is with a parent, such as commenting on the child's cute boots. But then she keeps going.

"I think everybody misses out. Some of the great people that I had dealings with were eccentric strangers when I was a kid," she said.

"The flip side of getting a child to understand stranger danger at five is: Does that person have more of a likelihood of growing up fearing people — fearing people of other religions, fearing people of other ethnicities, other sexualities...? The idea that 'other' is to be feared is a dangerous idea," she said.

'Terror of being a parent'

Kansas also recognized that parents will, on rare occasions, need to be vigilant.

"It's all well and good for me to sit here childless, saying, 'Let your child talk to eccentric Janey,' but I understand that if you have a small child, it doesn't matter if Janey is eccentric or harmless or what the heck, 'No, stay away from that weird woman!'"

"It's the terror of being a parent," said Wood. "You have made this thing that you love so much. Anything that hurts them will hurt you the worst ... It's a wonder than anyone agrees to be a parent because you're opening yourself up to the wonderful possibilities of being the happiest you could ever be and the terrible possibility of being the saddest you could ever be. So the bravery of being a parent should be hugely applauded. But know that if you're terrified of the world, your children will also be terrified of the world."

The 'risk society'

Michele Byers, a professor in the department of sociology and criminology at Saint Mary's University, says the topic is an interesting one she views as both a sociologist and a parent.

"We have to think about the way the world is today. And the question is, of course, sociologically, what does that mean? Is the world today different? ... Is Halifax less safe today than it was in the '80s, the '70s or the '60s?" she said.

Byers said sociologists have seen the rise of the "risk society," meaning that "everywhere we look now we're intended to think about how to mitigate risk." But instead of imagining that risk spread out over the whole community, people think that they as individuals have to mitigate all the risk themselves.

Byers said when she was nine years old, growing up in Montreal, she often took the bus and the Metro on her own. Her mother had no idea where she was at any given point during the day.

"The assumption was that the risk that I might be in was mitigated by a community of responsibility. And I don't think we have that now. Now it's deeply embedded that as individuals ... it's only my job to be responsible for my kid. I can't count on the community ... and that creates incredible anxiety in people and they radically change their behaviour in order to mitigate those risks."