Don't talk to strangers. Is that the edict your parents provided when you were a child? Have you advised the same with your children? Do you have conversations with your neighbors and friends about stranger danger? I'll admit when my children were toddlers, and I too told them not to talk to strangers, but quickly found myself conflicted. Like when I encouraged them to be polite and say hello to the grocery cashier – a stranger. These mixed messages were confusing for us all, so I made the unpopular decision to say YES to talking to strangers. I know what you're thinking - it's crazy to allow kids to talk to strangers these days! I get that, but let's dissect stranger danger to see how it relates to children's safety.
The term stranger danger is a blanket phrase that describes the threat to children presented by strangers and intends to sum up the risk associated with adults children do not know. News outlets and social media might make one feel as though we are in the middle of a child-abduction epidemic. However, national statistics show that children are more are at risk of being victimized or kidnapped by adults they know, such as a parent, a caregiver, a relative, or a friend of the family. Stranger abductions are rare.
Helping your child learn to identify and respond to certain situations that involve strangers can build a level of awareness vital to personal safety. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that children as young as three can evaluate trustworthiness reasonably accurate, and can do so as well as adults by the time they are seven. There is value in this.
Teach your child to read people's signals like body language and tones of voice. Eye contact is also crucial. Bad strangers want to possess the element of surprise. Making eye contact tells the person you are aware of them. Guide them to listen to verbal cues like "come look at this," "do you want this," or "is this yours." These are clues to get safe now. Let your child know they are allowed to use their voice - the louder, the better. Yelling, "Get away from me! You are not my mom/dad!" or "Help me! I don't know this person!" are vital elements in getting help. Give your child permission to fight if a stranger ever grabs them.
Presenting scenarios and asking your child how they would handle them is also a great way to create dialogue about safety. If a stranger at a park asked if you preferred the swing or slide best, what would you say? If a stranger drives up in a car while you are playing in the front yard and begins to ask questions, what would be your plan? Talk with your child about what makes them feel safe, and let them know if they don't feel safe, it's okay to walk away or find a safe adult.
But teaching children to disregard all strangers could inadvertently lead to fear, intolerance, or disinterest within their own culture or community. Being curious about and connecting with people we don't know is natural, and shouldn't be forbidden entirely. If we train our children to distrust adults simply because they are strangers, how will they feel confident getting help from anyone other than someone they know? And because it's essential to look at things through the eyes of children when teaching safety, how would we make new friends if we can't talk to strangers? That's a question I got from a 5-year-old when we were discussing good and bad strangers in class. Oh, how right he was