One of our main responsibilities as parents is to establish a safe environment for our children and to keep them out of harm’s way and, in today’s world, this also means teaching them to be wary of unknown people or in other words, “stranger danger”.
However, as life brings us constantly into contact with others, this is not as easy as you would think and you have to find a balance between your children being wary of strangers, but able to interact with others, and gaining a lifelong fear of strangers.
So just what is meant when we talk about stranger danger?
The primary concern of stranger danger we recognize is the horror of abduction. Child abduction does occur although it is not common. Currently it is estimated that about 58,000 children are abducted by non-family members in the United States each year. It is also the case that, in the vast majority of cases, the children abducted are found or returned home unharmed within twenty-four hours.
In spite of the statistics, if the child taken is your child then even a single case a year is one case too many. It is important nonetheless to realize that the chances of this happening to your child are very small and, while you have to take steps to prevent this happening, you must also make sure that you don’t go overboard and end up unnecessarily frightening, and in worse cases, psychologically harming your children, instead of protecting them.
It is also necessary to understand that attitudes towards people which are learnt in childhood persist long into adulthood. Therefore, while it is important that we alert our children to the dangers they face we don’t also want to create dangers for them which don’t really exist. Neither do we wish them to grow up suspecting anyone and everyone.
When teaching our children about strangers the first thing we need to do is to understand that what we mean by a stranger and the person that a child sees as a stranger will not always be the same.
The man who runs the corner shop, and to whom your child sees you talking every morning when you buy a newspaper, is obviously a stranger by our parental definition. However, your child will probably see this ‘nice’ man as ‘daddy’s or mommy’s friend’.
Now this might suggest that we should simply teach our children to view everyone outside of the family as a stranger. However, if your children are out alone when they run into difficulty then they are going to need to ask for help and so you need to teach them to distinguish between different types of stranger.
A policeman, for example, is technically a stranger, but is clearly someone who you would want your child to approach for help. By the same token, if your child became separated from you in the supermarket you would want them to be able to ask somebody for assistance. A person wearing the store’s staff uniform and an employee badge should therefore be seen as someone they can approach if they need to.
As soon as children are old enough to go out alone then they need to be given the ‘rules’, such as not accepting sweets and gifts, not accepting lifts, not going into a stranger’s house and so on. In most cases they will still be too young to understand just why they have to follow these rules but, as they grow older and their understanding increases, it’s important to gradually begin to teach them about the dangers posed by strangers.
It’s vitally important that you take the child’s age and understanding into account when teaching them about stranger danger and that you clearly outline the dangers, but do not overplay them so that your children are afraid to go out at all.
One last point. There are frequently warning signs of an impending problem and a stranger who targets a child will often spend a great deal of time getting to know the child and gaining the child’s trust.
Talking to your child and taking a genuine interest in where they are going, what they are doing and who they are seeing will often reveal a pattern which could give you cause for concern and provide you with the opportunity to take action and avert a problem before it arises. Just remember, stranger danger is an important part of a child growing up and will enable them to recognize bad situations or who to trust.