Today I was in a gas station with my 13-year-old son, Alex. I heard an older lady talking to herself while struggling to use the ATM. She couldn’t figure it out and was getting really frustrated and anxious. I hesitated to help because I thought she might feel like I was going to take advantage of her, but then it became more and more apparent that she wasn’t getting it. I asked if she needed help and she said yes, she did, that since her stroke she’s had a hard time understanding things. She was appreciative of my help, very sweet and friendly.
As we worked on it together, Alex came down the aisle on the other side of her. I saw her look at him and felt her pull back, fearful. I looked at him from her point of view: a tall young man, hovering nearby, trying unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous. Suddenly I realized the inconvenience of being a male in that situation. We talk about women feeling afraid, but what about men, even helpful men, who want to do something nice for an older lady but are seen as threatening? I saw Alex and remembered my little guy who liked to cuddle and hug and play drums on the pots and pans, but she saw Alex as a man taller than she was, sidling up beside her to steal her cash.
If only she knew that he looked at her slyly from the corner of his eye because he is shy and embarrassed and doesn’t quite know whether to talk to her or not. If only she knew that not long ago he stood in the living room hugging his big sister as she cried about the death of her guinea pig. If only she knew he has shaved fewer times than he can count on one hand and still feels nervous about going to the high school for band practice with the big kids since he is just in middle school himself.
“Oh, that’s my son. Hey, Alex!” I said, and she visibly relaxed.
I won’t always be there to help the older ladies see him for who he is. I hope he can do that for himself. I don’t think he’ll have a problem. He’s pretty sweet. But I had just told him a moment earlier that if he heard someone struggling like that he had to think through whether to help her or not because she might feel scared that he was trying to hurt her.
I know that because it’s happened before to his dad. Andrew has a particular appeal to older ladies. I don’t think he’s ever met a woman over the age of 50 who didn’t love him within minutes of meeting him. But once he was in a grocery store where an older woman was having a very hard time with the ATM. He watched, thinking about offering to help, when her friend appeared out of nowhere and started yelling at him. Accusing him of trying to steal the woman’s pin over her shoulder, she wouldn’t listen to reason. She called a security guard over. Finally, they worked it out, but I had to warn Alex of the potential for misunderstanding.
How sad that we live in a world where a vulnerable person has to be suspicious of a 13-year-old! In a society where a kind man tries to be a gentleman and is punished for it or treated with suspicion, how can we teach our boys to make a difference to those in vulnerable positions? We instruct our children the best that we can, but in a fallen world we must face the fact that even people who are trying to help others can be hurt or can hurt them inadvertently. The man who wants to help a woman, the friend who tries to protect her, the boy watching innocently as his mom assists someone. I’m not sure a lot can be done about this, besides leading our children to care for others and be wise in the way they approach that caring, but I hope a consistently kind and loving, godly presence in society will somehow make a difference. I have to believe it will.