By Christy Keating, Owner of Savvy Parents Safe Kids
Every time I give a safety presentation or speak to a group of parents, I ask how many of them were taught the term “stranger danger” as kids and, with very few exceptions, they all raise their hands. I then ask how many of them have used that same vocabulary with their own children and again, the show of hands is usually almost unanimous.
You might be thinking, “Great! There’s at least one parenting message we can all agree on!” Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work—“stranger danger” does virtually nothing to keep our kids safer; in fact, it might just do the opposite. Here’s why:
1. Teaching our children that strangers = danger fosters an unhealthy fear of strangers in our children. It’s fear-based teaching and may discourage our children from seeking help when they most need it because they are afraid to ask a stranger. The reality is that the very large majority of “strangers” are good people that would willingly help our children if asked, and we don’t want to discourage our children from tapping into that resource (in a smart way) if they are in trouble and need help (like if they are lost, for example).
2. The term “stranger” holds very little meeting for children, especially young ones. It simply doesn’t register. How many of you have watched your preschoolers go to a local park and after a few minutes announce that the child they are playing with is their best friend? Most children make friends very easily and it only takes a moment or an introduction for a stranger to become a friend, especially if they look or act “nice.”
3. Teaching children stranger danger reinforces the idea, both in our children and in our own minds, that predatory threats to our children are likely to come in the form of a stranger. However, the research shows that over 90% of child sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known to the child or his/her family. Focusing on stranger danger means we may overlook any true threat to our children, which is far more likely to arise closer to home.
So, if “stranger danger” isn’t an effective teaching tool, what should we be using in its stead? Pattie Fitzgerald, a colleague of mine and founder of “Safely Ever After, Inc.” in California, coined the term “tricky people”—a far more useful concept to teach children. Let me explain why.
When we are talking safety with our children (after age 3 or so), they need to know that a “tricky person” can be a man, a woman, or even another child, and they need to know that it may be someone that they know a lot, a little, or not at all. Most importantly, a “tricky person” is someone that tries to get a child to break a safety rule or refuses to abide by the boundaries set by the child or his or her parents. By teaching them this, our children learn that it’s not the appearance of a person or their relationship (or lack of relationship) to us that makes them dangerous—it’s their behavior. By focusing on troubling behaviors, kids can learn to think more critically about the situation they are in and identify when something is “off” or suspicious.
Once our children understand what to watch for, we can then have more productive discussions about what to do if they encounter a tricky person. Through all of these discussions, it is critical that we share the following four messages: a) You can trust your instincts—if something feels off, it probably is; b) You can always talk to me; c) I will always help you; and d) I will always believe you. With those tools and strategies under your belt, you are well under way to erasing the legacy of “stranger danger” and replacing it with something much more effective!
For more information, or to bring me to your local parenting group for an in-depth discussion about keeping your kids safe (topics range from preschool through high school), join my mailing list or reach out to schedule a complimentary discovery call today!