The baby was asleep in his car seat so I read in the front seat of our van while the kids played on the play structure that was about thirty feet away from where I sat. I had the windows rolled down so I could hear them squealing and laughing as they played.
I glanced up from time to time to see to see the kids chasing up the stairs or racing down the slides. Their heads bobbed in and out of the various tunnels and tubes.
One time I looked up to watch them playing hide and seek with a young boy and girl who had arrived with their mother. I waved to the mom to show her that I was close by and watching them.
The next time I looked up I saw an old man standing at the corner of the park with his little dog.
A few minutes later he was walking very slowly down the sidewalk next to the playground. His dog running circles around him as he puttered along.
Then he was sitting on the park bench just a few feet away from my children.
His sweats were rolled up high above his ankles and knee socks were scrunched down, leaving a few inches of skin peeking out between them. He had a fanny pack on over an oversized Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. The old golf cap was pulled low and silver hair was poking out the back.
I didn’t look back down, but watched him as he watched the children play. I had an uneasy feeling. He hadn’t taken his eyes off my kids since I saw him standing at the corner. What was this man doing at a playground without children or grandchildren with him?
I had just read an article the week before about a convicted child molester who had been discovered hanging out at a city pool watching the children. Possibly looking for his next victim. He had gone day after day and sat on a bench watching until finally one of the regulars got concerned and had him checked out, thank goodness.
I got out of the car and walked a little closer as one of my children got close enough to him to ask him about his dog.
“Oh, she is friendly. You can pet her.” a shaky high-pitched voice responded.
It wasn’t an old man. It was a woman.
My heart instantly softened and my mind was filled with pictures of a lonely widow who came to the park to watch the kids play as she thought of the years she had raised her own children.
I stepped back to my van, still in listening distance of the conversation. My other two children had joined them by this time and she was directing them on how her dog liked to be scratched behind the ears.
I felt shame.
I don’t like to misjudge people and I don’t like to jump to conclusions. It made me wonder why I had felt so alarmed when I saw this person near my children. I am sure the article I read had something to do with it, but it didn’t make me feel any better. It shouldn’t have mattered whether it was a man or woman watching the kids, but for some reason my reaction was different as my perspective changed.
This happened last summer and I still think about it. How often do I misjudge others? What can I do to keep my children safe, without letting my worry for them interfere with a realistic view of the world and those around me?
As a parent it is my responsibility to figure out the balance between guarding and protecting my children and letting them discover their surroundings and develop who they really are.
I am a little bit better at it now than I was last summer.