If you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, I am sure you had your share of Stranger Danger talks from parents and schools. “Don’t talk to strangers.” “Don’t take candy from strangers.” Kids were taught to scream “Stranger Danger” when any adult male they didn’t know spoke to them out in public.
Why did we have these campaigns? The answer really goes back to the 1960’s when news agencies began reporting on child kidnappings. By the 1980’s these stories were everywhere. I am not trying to blame the media, but let’s face the fact that people develop worry and anxiety over things they see in the news because it feels like these bad things happen everywhere all the time.
Communities had to do something, and so out of love for our children, we taught them not to talk to strangers. It does seem to make sense based upon the notion that strangers are kidnapping our children all the time.
In today’s world, we don’t hear this message coming from our schools and community agencies any more (although I still hear parents having focused conversations with their kids about not talking to strangers). Why don’t we teach this in our schools anymore, you might ask?
Because not only doesn’t it work, it can be unhealthy.
First, let’s think about why it doesn’t work. How many times have you seen Stranger Danger tested to a parent’s dismay? A parent tells his 6 year old over and over not to talk to strangers. Then the parent tests the 6 year old by having a fake “stranger” talk to them and the 6 year old walks off with the “stranger.” The parent is frustrated and embarrassed at failing as a parent. Sorry parents, your kids just aren’t going to be great at ignoring and avoiding strangers 100% of the time. To confuse kids more, we encourage them to talk to some strangers and not others. They see us talking to strangers. We tell them to be nice to people. Oh, but if a scary looking “dangerous” man approaches your kid, they need to scream and run away. Wait, what makes a man scary looking or dangerous? What if the man is nice? You get the point – teaching your kids not to talk to strangers is too complicated for us, let alone them.
The reality is Stranger Danger doesn’t work because it does not put people and situations into context. I often talk about how context is everything. Strangers are not dangerous. People who commit violent crime are dangerous. How do we know the difference? You need context.
Speaking of context, here is some for you parents. The US Department of Justice tells us 99% of kidnappings are from known persons – not strangers. The vast majority of missing children are runaways, not victims of kidnapping. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children does not teach Stranger Danger anymore by the way.
My second point is how Stranger Danger is actually unhealthy. There are almost just as many stories of kids avoiding rescue workers out of fear as there are stories of kids being kidnapped. That’s right, the flip side of Stranger Danger is your child is so scared to talk to strangers, they don’t talk to the ones who are sent to save them. Talk about adding trauma to a lost child at the amusement park. Not only would they be scared they are lost, they are scared of all those strangers just swarming around them. Further, they have nobody to turn to for help.
Do we really want our children to think strangers are bad? Do you think strangers are bad? I sure don’t. Strangers not only aren’t bad, they can be the people who come to our rescue in times of need. Strangers become our new friends. Strangers change our lives for the better all the time. I say strangers are good.
If you want to give your kids tools to stay safe, please first put some thought into what their actual risks are. If your only focus is on a stranger abducting your child, you are statistically focused on the least likely risk for your child. With that said, you can have rules about having to get your permission before they go anywhere with someone. Or that they have to tell you if someone asks them to keep a secret. Educate them on who to talk to when they need help – police officers, teachers, people working at a store, nurses, doctors, etc.
I know it feels like we just can’t win as parents: Save our kids from kidnapping – teach them Stranger Danger. Oh no, Stranger Danger is actually bad? You just can’t win.
I am not trying to make parents feel like failures. To the contrary, I want you to be more effective. Avoiding danger and violence simply needs to start with first understanding what your risks are. And I’m sorry, your view on risk will be skewed if you get your understanding from the scariest news stories of the day. To get started, try searching some trusted sites to get the facts. Put some thought into what are the actual risks, not your anxiety about risk.
I am confident once you know the risks, you will do an amazing job at giving your children the right tools to stay safe.