“Don’t talk to strangers.”
“Just Say No.”
These were all programs designed to keep our kids healthy and safe that have been undeniably and quantitatively proven failures. Most of us were told not to talk to strangers by our parents, teachers, and the media. Teaching your children not to talk to strangers was a simple strategy parents loved and kids easily understood, but it was based on an erroneous assessment of danger and deprived children of the skills they need to interact safely with others. Instead, parents need to guide their children through the sea of complex human interaction and arm them with the skills and knowledge they need to stay safe.
A message of fear and danger was presented around the idea of strangers. The intentions of this program’s innovators and implementers were good. The line of logic is simple and clear: a stranger can molest or abduct your child. It played into our parents’ greatest fears and was easy for them to swallow. No one wants their child abducted or molested, and should such a terrible thing happen, it certainly wouldn’t be perpetrated by anyone they know.
Children were also quick to absorb the fear and mantra. Young children naturally have some varying level of fear around strangers as a defense mechanism for survival. The key to understand is that this is an early stage of development and children then graduate to a more complex understanding of people. They gain the ability to observe and evaluate each individual with whom they come into contact. Telling them to fear all “others” and trust all “insiders” does them a great disservice, especially considering that most children are molested by adults they already know.
There are several reasons why teaching your child, “Don’t talk to strangers,” is not in his best interest. First, installing this formula into your child’s mind overrides the natural development of your child’s ability to distinguish between bad strangers and good strangers and dangerous situations that would give your child that “this doesn’t feel right” internal alarm. All of this amazingly adaptive instinctual wisdom will be blocked by the oversimplified blanket rule that strangers are bad and people we know are good. Second, your child has a better chance of remaining safe if he is taught to seek the help of good strangers. We have all seen the child who is lost in the store, standing there staring silently at the ground, looking so vulnerable and ripe for the picking by a predator. Third, your child is statistically1, 2 more likely to be molested by someone he already knows than by a stranger. Teaching your child that strangers are bad and people you know are good disarms his individual evaluation of each person and silences his internal alarms around dangerous people in his life. Fourth, there are global implications of raising a child with an “others bad, insiders good” mentality; from the simpler politics of friendship on the playground (think cliques, bullying, and a fearfulness that impedes initiating friendships), to a landscape with more serious implications like government leadership (think Hitler). Raising your children to judge and fear or accept people by categories without actually getting to know them is not a paradigm for raising a person who is going to make a positive contribution to the world.
So what are we as parents to do with innocent children into whom we pour all of our energy and love, brimming with potential for the future, when it’s our job to keep them safe? Foster the instincts, teach the skills, and guide your child to be smart, safe, and assertive.
Teach your child that there are good strangers and bad strangers. Good strangers can help you. Bad strangers are dangerous. This is the most important departure from “Stranger Danger” because good strangers can help keep your child safe in dangerous situations. Teach your child to seek out good strangers if you are not there and she needs help. To lay the groundwork for your child’s developing ability to tell the difference, give her specific things to look for. A good stranger is another mother with young children. This is the best one. The youngest of children can easily identify a mother with young children and they are always around. Another mother with young children will almost always help a child in distress. Humorously, when children are asked to describe a bad stranger, the answer is more of a caricature than reality (e.g. a growling man with a hat, a long black coat, and a long beard).3 Children cannot tell the difference between a police uniform and a convenience store uniform before age 4, so make sure your safe-stranger identifiers are things to which your child can relate. You can start this lesson while your child is still very young. “She waves and says hi to everyone. She is so friendly that I worry about her safety with strangers.”4 When in a store with your friendly little one, guide her toward safe strangers and identify them by the characteristics that make them safe. “Look, there’s another mommy. Say hi to the mommy!”
If your child ever gets lost, he should STOP and SCREAM a specific word, such as your first name, like an alarm. Most often when a child is lost you have just momentarily lost sight of each other, and STOP and SCREAM will help you in several ways. First, your child plants his feet into the ground like roots on a tree and stays put. This will make him easier for you to find and much harder to lure away. Second, it calls major attention. Again, this will make him easier for you to find and also harder to abduct because it will call the attention of everyone within earshot. This can be embarrassing if you are in the library or at a restaurant, but it’s worth it. And when you reunite, congratulate him on doing everything right. Don’t put your embarrassment on him or it will discourage him from being as assertive or vocal in the future when he could really be in danger. You will want every decibel in his corner.
Teach your child that if she is lost, she should NEVER LEAVE with a stranger, no matter what. “Mommy will always come to you.” This is an important one because this is where bad strangers can get tricky. They can tell your child that they will bring her to her mommy. “Mommy sent me to bring you to her.” Teach your child: “a good stranger will keep you safe while I get to you or will bring me to you. A bad stranger will try to take you away.” If a bad stranger tries to pull her roots from the ground and take her away, she should scream, “Get back, bad stranger!” like an alarm and kick and punch and bite as hard as she can. This is where you give your child a license to go crazy. Do everything she can to get away: scratch, kick, poke, throw herself on the ground, scream at the top of her lungs, and run away. This is especially true of cars. Make sure your child knows that she should never get in a car with a stranger. Even a police officer will not ask your child to come with him as long as she can tell him her name and phone number. The officer will stand with your child and attempt to identify her and contact you.
Teach your child his full name, your full name, and his phone number. The best way to do this is in song. The youngest of children can memorize and recite a song. My 1-year-old sang “R-A-I-N spells RAIN, B-O-L-T spells BOLT, R-A-I-N, B-O-L-T spells RAINBOLT!” You can also write your child’s name and phone number on the inside of the tongue of his shoe in permanent marker. You can instruct him to show it to a good stranger who is trying to help him.
Talk about grown-ups and strangers and encourage open communication. When that man touched your daughter’s head in line at the grocery store and she recoiled, talk through the experience with her right then and there. “The man touched your head. You didn’t like it? Say, ‘No touch (and hold up her hand as if saying stop)!’” “Is that girl saying hi to you? Is she being nice? Say hi! ‘Hi girl (wave).’” Ask your children about encounters with their teachers, friend’s parents, even family members. Call attention to adults who were helpful (safe strangers) and feelings of discomfort. Encourage your children to listen to and trust those feelings inside telling them “safe” or “dangerous.”
Send a clear message that there are no secrets from parents. Sometimes children can be discouraged from tattling by parents or teachers. But the difference between legitimate and warranted reporting and tattling is frequently lost on little ones. Tattling is actually telling on someone for something you are not affected by. “Crew just took Jesse’s eraser!” That is a tattle because your child is not affected or involved. “Crew just took my eraser!” is not tattling because your child is directly affected and involved. Adults sometimes use the term tattling when a child’s high level of need leaves them feeling like the child is a pest or when the incident is deemed unimportant from the adult’s perspective. But be mindful of the precedent you choose to set. A situation that may seem unimportant to a child might in fact be very important from an adult perspective and vice versa. You want to teach your children how to solve their own problems in a way that always leaves that door of communication open. Secrets are an aspect of open communication where parents should set a clear policy. There are no secrets from both Mommy and Daddy. Children don’t have to tell parents every single thought that runs through their minds, feeling that they experience in their hearts, or event that occurs throughout their day, but there should be no secrets. Secrets are things that are intentionally kept hidden. Explain to your children that if someone asks you or tells you to keep a secret, trigger your alarm. No matter what scary threat or enticing reward is presented, you always tell Mommy or Daddy. This is where the conversation usually veers to, “What about presents?” (or maybe that’s just my sassy, inquisitive children). That is why the policy is that there are no secrets from both Mommy and Daddy. One parent (or loving caregiver) should know any secret. So Daddy’s Christmas present can be a secret because Mommy is in on it.
Teach your child to confidently assert herself. Most parents teach their children to obey adults; but respect and unconditional obedience are two different things. Children should always respect adults but they should not be afraid to assert their personal boundaries. The best way to teach this is through modeling, as discussed when teaching your child to stand up to bullies. If a child pushes your daughter on the playground, you say, “Don’t push her!” while holding up your hand as if saying stop. The next time you can stand behind her and hold her hands. Say, “Don’t push me!” and hold her hands up in front of her. The same modeling of assertiveness for personal boundaries should be used with strangers. If a stranger gets too close and you can see that it is making her uncomfortable, say politely, “Back up please, you’re making her uncomfortable.” For those of us
who never learned to assert our personal boundaries as children, this can be a lot harder than it sounds. But if you let it go, she will learn to let it happen. React exactly the way you would hope she would if you were not there. Lay out the policy “You are the boss of your body.” No matter what an adult asks of you, you always have the right and the authority to tell someone not to touch your body.
Parents will allow things to happen under the umbrella of religion that they would never otherwise allow. If protective instincts tell you it is not prudent for your child to be alone and secluded with a middle-aged man, then that is not a safe choice, whether he is wearing a trench coat or a clerical robe. Religious institutions are run by people; they are human and fallible. You should not silence your parental wisdom or your child’s feelings of discomfort just because there is a cross on top of the building. There is an inherent trust in the institution housing your spiritual faith. That trust, while providing a sense of peace, security, and belonging in your religious establishment, can blind you to potential dangers and experiences that are not in the best interest of your child. When faced with a situation, ask yourself: if this scenario or lesson were outside the religious context, would you deem it appropriate? The obvious example is the rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I’m sure those parents did not intentionally sacrifice their children to a priest, but they did turn a blind eye to the blaring warning signs because they were blinded by the light of the church. This can also be seen in less extreme examples. A friend called me practically in tears because her 3-year-old daughter was attending church camp and was traumatized at being forced to watch a reenactment of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, in which a church elder with whom she was familiar was playing the role of Jesus. So let’s look at this situation from outside the religious context. Would you allow your 3-year-old to watch a reenactment in which a family friend was viciously tortured and brutally murdered? I think not. I understand that imbuing an understanding of the pain and sacrifice suffered by this prominent religious figure implies the depth of his devotion to you and is supposed to intensify your devotion to his following. But the facts remain: either it is appropriate to expose your preschooler to torturous death or it is not. Despite what spirit with which you believe your religious leaders to be endowed, it is contained within a human body. And a human being has the potential capability of harming a child.
While dropping my 4-year-old off at preschool one day, my 1-year-old was standing near the sand table eating his peanut butter sandwich. One of my son’s preschool teachers grabbed his arm and pulled him over to me saying, “He can’t have this here” (peanut butter-free campus). My son immediately put on his assertive face and said, “Teacher touch Bailey’s arm! Bailey no like it! No touch Bailey’s arm, Teacher!” It was one of those proud Mommy moments. He was looking directly into her eyes and holding up his little hand like a stop sign. He was not hitting or screaming but respectfully and effectively asserting his personal boundaries. I made it clear to that teacher that if there was a problem, she should address me and was not to touch my son’s body.
Teaching children not to talk to strangers was a lesson that missed the mark. Instead of evading danger through fear and avoidance we must teach our children to strengthen their interpersonal skills, seek help with safe strangers, and assert their personal boundaries. Educate and empower4 instead of indoctrinating with fear. This strategy will yield a better-rounded person in the long run and has been proven to increase your child’s chances of remaining safe today.
”In Home Depot yesterday, River waved at this strange man as we were going down an aisle. She’s so sweet and loves everyone—it breaks my heart to have to teach her about all the bad and dangerous stuff in the world. Of course, I guess I get to teach her about all the beauty and joy in the world too.”
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- Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., and Sedlak, A. 1990 (May). Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- Groth, N.A., Burgess, A.W., Birnbaum, H.J., and Gary, T.S. 1978. A study of the child molester myths and realities. Journal of the American Criminal Justice Association 41:17-22.
- Rayment, T. 1991 (August 18). Stranger danger. The Sunday Times (England).
- Play It Safe: http://www.playitsafedefense.com/index.html