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Teaching young children about “stranger danger”

Street photography - photograph of a child wat...

Street photography – photograph of a child watching children play on the grounds of Arts College at Osmania University, Hyderabad, AP – India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am writing this post in response to a post by GorillaParenting’s post, “Stranger Danger- Gorilla Parenting- Fail!”  I will re-blog it so you can see the quick video of (I assume) the writer’s daughter answering the question, “What do you do if a stranger tries to give you a piece of candy?”  Her answer is, “Say thank you.”  While this is very cute, it also raises a question posed by the blogger- how do we teach our children who is safe and who is not?

Most of us grew up hearing about stranger danger and about never talking to strangers, etc. but I think it is time for a new conversation about this topic that first acknowledges that this is a much more complex issue than we give it credit for.  We know that it is important in our lives to talk to strangers for many things.  After all, on the first day of school, your child’s new teacher is often a stranger to them but of course you want them to talk to the teacher.  At the same time, we want them to be able to identify and get away from anyone who has an intent to harm them.  So, how does one teach a young child who is and is not safe?  Here are a few tips.

1.  “Stranger Danger lessons” grow and change over a lifetime and are not a one time event.  Start this conversation with your young child by asking them if they know what strangers are, followed up by a question about what strangers look like.  You might be surprised by the response you get.  Many children know that strangers are people you do not know, but then if you ask what they look like, children sometimes feel they can give a pretty good description.  This is your opportunity to begin teaching your child about strangers and how to tell if someone is a “safe” stranger or not.  Every child will stay away from a scary guy in a dark cape hanging out in an alley- we know that, it’s the person who would try to lure your child away with kindness that we worry about.  And, of course, there is a healthy balance to be made here because we do not want children to be frightened.  I coach my own children to speak to strangers that are “helping strangers” like someone who works at the store, a police officer or firefighter.  I also tell them if they are ever lost or need help to look for a parent who has children with them that are the same age as my child.  After all, a parent with same age children is most likely to empathize with the needs of my child and to help them to get the help they need.

2.  Come up with some rules for your child about who is and is not a stranger.  When does someone become an acquaintance and does that mean you can go into their home or with them in a car?  In one of your ongoing conversations with your child, fit this in.  What do you need to know about a person for them not to be a stranger anymore?  I often would say you need to know their first and last names, where they live or work, and your mom or dad has to say they are no longer a stranger.  Even if someone is not a stranger, you can talk about whether they are okay to go with and make sure your child always knows to tell you before they go with someone.  Many families also have a code word that they use with kids so that if something ever happened where, say, the normal person was not there to get them off the bus after school, the parent would send someone to pick the child up and that person would share the code word so the child knows they are safe.

3.  Make a playful guessing game with your child when you go to the park and ask them who is a “safe” stranger and who is an “unsafe” stranger.  This will give you an opportunity to teach your child to listen to their own instincts about who is safe to talk to and what it is okay to talk to them about, and to teach them that people who look good, are not always what they appear to be.  Any stranger that tries to give a child something or tries to have a child go with them without checking with their parents or having the kids check with their parents is not okay.   You can also talk with kids about listening to the “uh oh” feeling we get around people sometimes in their tummy, heart or throat.  Tell them to check with you first before talking to a stranger (you can come up with a signal like a head nod to say it is okay also).  After a child talks to the stranger, ask them how it felt.  You can ask them if that person would have been okay to go with to check on their lost puppy (hint- the answer is always “no,” or, “only if I check with you (the parent) first.”   If kids get an “uh oh” feeling about a stranger, talk about why they think that is- was the person not listening about your child’s personal space body language (were they in your space bubble?).  Was the person asking intrusive, personal questions? Acknowledge how these things can be disturbing and help kids figure out how to address them with adults in a respectful way.

When talking to your young child about strangers, I would be sure to try to keep the conversation on the lighter, playful side since we do not want to scare them, but to also playfully fit in little tests of their knowledge.  Children love it when they know the answers to questions.  Remember too, that children love it when they know the rules about things, and, even more, they love rituals.  Create a ritual where each time you go to the park, you remind them of the rules on the way, stay on the mulched area, ask me before you run to the bathroom by yourself, ask the owner before you pet their dog, and never go anywhere with anyone or accept anything from anyone without asking first.  When they are tired of you saying the rules every time, you can make it a guessing game and they can tell you the rules.  When they consistently tell you the rules every time, they have got it and you have done the best you can do on this one.

What’s funny is that I don’t think that original video that prompted this post is a “fail” at all.  My guess, by looking at the body language of the child is that what actually happened is mom and dad thought they were asking the child about stranger danger but what the child imagined in her safe, secure little world was that a stranger presented her with candy with mom or dad watching and giving a nod, then she takes it.  So, what do you do then?  Say thank you, of course!

The real problem is that the people who most often harm children are not strangers.  Look for future posts about how to help children feel confident enough to protect themselves if someone they know ever tries to cross a boundary.

April 25, 2012 - Posted by | child development, help for parents, keeping children safe | , , , , , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. Thanks so much for following this through – what excellent advice!
    In fact No.1 summarises your concluding paragraph – I suspect little K has yet to grasp the concept of what differentiates between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ strangers.

    Wouldn’t it be cool to post a follow up vid, maybe a month or two in, to see the effects of implementing steps 1-3!

    The Gorilla.

    Comment by GorillaParenting | April 25, 2012 | Reply

    • Yes! Yes! Please do 🙂 I look forward to it! And…feel free to share the post.

      Comment by help4yourfamily | April 25, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for reblogging while I was in the middle of gently suggesting that you reblog 🙂

      Comment by help4yourfamily | April 25, 2012 | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Gorilla Parenting and commented:
    Thanks to help4yourfamily for this

    Comment by GorillaParenting | April 25, 2012 | Reply

  3. Thanks for this. My little girl is almost three and I haven’t yet talked to her about strangers. She is fearless. She doesn’t even avoid the scary looking people…. Right now I view it as my job to keep on top of keeping her safe with the idea that there’s time to learn fear and caution later, but I’ve been starting to consider how to begin to teach her that she needs to not leave with strangers without the damage of making her fearful of all strangers.
    The balancing act seems important because my husband describes being sent to kindergarten so fearful of strangers that he wouldn’t talk to his teacher for months. I’d like to avoid that.
    What age would you recommend starting the process at? Understanding that it will take time for understanding to develop.

    Comment by unhappymommy | April 26, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment and the answer to your question is now! Start now! I know it is scary for parents when you have a child who seems fearless around strangers but you might want to look at a few things to decide if you really need to worry about this. The first is, whether she looks to you before talking to the stranger to see if you are okay with her talking to them. As long as she is looking for permission, that is less worrisome. Otherwise, just start by talking to her about how it is okay to be friendly and kind to people but it is also important to always ask you or the other adult in charge before she ever goes with someone. Three year olds are not yet sophistocated enough to get that when people act genuine, they may be tricking them so just emphasizing that she needs to ask you first before accepting something or going anywhere is where you want to start. All the best to you and your family 🙂

      Comment by help4yourfamily | April 26, 2012 | Reply

  4. […] him, think of a gentle teacher you have met and emulate them.  Just like talking to kids about “stranger danger” this is not a one-time conversation.  Check in periodically with kids about what they would do if […]

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