When I was little, kidnapping was a parent’s and kid’s biggest fear. It seemed like kids were being snatched everyday, and parents drilled into their kids’ heads, “Never talk to strangers.” The problem was, parents back then never explained to kids who, exactly, was a stranger.
I remember going shopping in a hardware store with my dad, a place we had been many times before. A nice salesman offered me a piece of gum – people were always giving me free food back then – and I took it. My dad, however, freaked out. I had spoken to and (gasp!) taken candy from a stranger.
I was bewildered. I met strangers everyday – at school, shopping, even first-time baby sitters. Some strangers, apparently, were not only safe to take snacks from but also were people I had to obey, like substitute teachers. Others, like the store salesman, seemed perfectly nice and probably was, but he was someone to fear and avoid. Typically, my 4-year-old self had trouble telling these strangers apart.
Of course, I wasn’t alone. And by the time my son, Ben, was out of the toddler stage and starting preschool, parents still routinely told kids never to talk to strangers, but we also explained who a stranger was – not as easy as it sounds.
Stranger Danger Defined
Most strangers are harmless, but the one who isn’t can change a family’s life forever. That’s why you must teach early and often who is a dangerous stranger and what is suspicious behavior.
Who is a stranger?
At its core, a stranger is someone your family doesn’t know well. Even if an adult looks and acts perfectly nice, he is a stranger if you and your child hasn’t talked to or interacted with him before.
Now, here’s the tricky part. Some strangers are safe, like teachers and principals, while others can be dangerous.
These are people children can turn to for help if, say, they are lost. These strangers often wear a uniform, like a policeman or firefighter, or they work at a safe place, like school or your place of worship.
Starting when your child is 3 or 4, frequently point out safe strangers, so they begin to learn whom to trust.
They don’t wear a uniform and not even a sneer, so dangerous strangers are harder for even adults to spot, no less children. But a dangerous stranger often acts in a suspicious way that you can discuss with your kids. Some warning behaviors include:
• Asking a child to disobey rules that parents or schools have handed down.
• Asking a child to go somewhere with them without permission.
• Asking a child to “help” them, say, find their puppy. Adults should not ask unfamiliar children for help.
• Telling a child to keep a secret from their parents.
• Provoking an “uh-oh” feeling within a child, no matter what the reason.
Teach Children How To Handle Danger Strangers
The National Crime Prevention Council advises parents to teach children the “No, Go, Yell, Tell” rule. When a child encounters a danger stranger he should say “No!” in a loud voice, run away, yell, and find a parent or trusted adult immediately and tell what happened.
Practice will empower your child to handle dicey situations. Role-play possible dangerous scenarios and coach your child on the proper response. And teach your children always to trust their instincts; if they feel uncomfortable, they should leave the situation as soon as they can.