When I was a child growing up in the 90s, I remember my parents and teachers relentlessly hammering in the idea that I should not talk with strangers. There was the phrase “stranger danger,” and the constant warning that if I talked to a stranger, they might take me away and do bad things to me.
But in hindsight, child experts have concluded that may not have been the best approach. Most strangers we encounter are good people who would never dream of harming a child, and children can get confused about distinguishing good strangers from bad ones. But most importantly of all, child safety program KidSmartz points out that most of the time, children are harmed by people they know and not by strangers.
The approach of “stranger danger” is thus outdated, and children should not be taught to be afraid of ever encountering a stranger. Instead, parents have to teach their child proper steps for interacting with a stranger and help them identify problematic behaviors which could signify bad intentions. And as your child matures, we teach them different behaviors to help them communicate with adults while staying safe.
Teach Behaviors, not People
A major problem in how we have taught children about strangers is that many children come away thinking that “strangers” are bad-looking, ugly people. The nice, well-dressed man with a puppy is clearly a nice person and so it is safe to go with him.
You cannot judge a book by its cover, and so you have to teach children to judge people by their actions instead of appearance. Tell them that if an adult does anything which makes them uncomfortable, or asks them to come along for any reason at all, that these are unsafe behaviors. Do not get overdramatic and start talking about the terrible things a stranger could do to them. The goal is to make your child appreciate the importance of being safe without becoming overly terrified of strangers.
Who can they Trust?
A child goes to a store and gets separated from the parent. Because the child has been firmly taught not to talk with strangers, they do not ask anyone for help and the parent has a much harder time trying to find their child.
In addition to teaching children about dangerous behaviors, make sure they learn which adults they can trust. At a young age, you can first start by pointing out other relatives as people they can trust. When they get older, you can start pointing out strangers they can trust such as the clerk in a grocery store or a police officer.
At the same time, teach your children about what to do if they have to approach a stranger for help. They should first try to find someone in a uniform; if they are lost in a store, head to the checkout and talk to the workers there. The next best option is to find another family with children and ask for their help, while staying alert and careful. Tell them to trust their instincts and stay away from those who they feel unsafe around.
Go over Scenarios
YouTube personality Joey Salads has a series of videos where he shows just how easy it can be for an individual to walk away with a child by dangling a puppy or ice cream. Those children’s parents were confident beforehand that their child would not talk to strangers, but came away realizing how much more they have to do.
Discussing specific scenarios with your child on what they should do can help far more than vague tips about talking with strangers. When you go to the store or a park, ask them what they would do if they got lost or if a nice man came to them. Tell them to keep their distance from anyone who asks for directions, and to never go with anyone without asking you first.
You do not want to talk about such scenarios every time you go to the store as you want your children to live without excessive fear. But by going over specific scenarios, you can help ensure that your child will make the right decisions.
Be There for Them
You cannot always be with your child, but every parent needs to make clear that you are always available to talk with your child. Parents.com makes the great point that when talking to a child about safety that “children need to know that there will always be someone to help them, and they have the right to be safe.”
Some people will hurt children and then tell them that they would be a tattletale if they told mommy what happened. You have to counteract that by letting it be known that you are always there to listen if something happened which made them feel uncomfortable.
I may have been taught “stranger danger,” but parents need to embrace a new approach which actually keeps kids safe. Do not forget to embrace your child as well and talk about how you are always there to listen to their fears.