We don’t talk to strangers. How many times have you heard a mother utter those words? How many times have you seen a mother or father pull a child away from a stranger without even a glance.
I have a very outgoing ten month old. She loves people, and loves being fawned over by people. She poses for cameras, gets excited by mirrors, and loves, loves, loves when people pay attention to her. She has a bright, beautiful smile.
Just last week walking down the road alongside a postal worker, he burst out laughing. I looked at him to find that he was looking at my little girl. “Wow!”, he told me, “when you’re having a day as bad as the one I’m having, a smile like that can change it. You, little girl,”he says, pointing at her, “have made my day”.
That was a stranger. But was she in danger?
I’m not sure if it’s the slight curls, or the bright smile, or the fact that she grabs for people’s fingers, but something about her makes people want to be around her. I have lost count of the number of men and women who have stretched out their arms to her as if to pick her up. To lift her out of her sling or off my lap and to hold her, often without even acknowledging my presence.
And every.single.time, my heart skips a beat and I silently will her not to go to them, not to be too trusting of strangers. That just because I’m right there, doesn’t mean she’s going to be safe.
For these are strangers. But is she in danger?
Well, in 2005/06 the average number of registered sex offenders was 58 per 100,000 of the population in England and Wales. That means, rounded up, 6 people per 10,000, or half a person per 1000. I know nearer 500 people than 1000, so in the people I know there is Â¼ of one person who could be a registered sex offender. Those aren’t bad odds – bad still for the average 1-9 victims to each offender, but provides hope that we’re not surrounded by people out to hurt our children.
That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen.
According the the NSPCC website:
- 1% of children aged under 16 experienced sexual abuse 1 by a parent or carer, and a further 3% by another relative during childhood.
- 11% of children aged under 16 experienced sexual abuse 1 during childhood by people known but unrelated to them.
- 5% of children aged under 16 experienced sexual abuse 1 during childhood by an adult stranger or someone they had just met.
- For the children who experienced sexual abuse in the family, the most common perpetrator was a brother or stepbrother:
- 38% of penetrative/oral acts of sexual abuse in the family were by a brother/stepbrother
- 23% were perpetrated by a father
- 14% were perpetrated by an uncle
- 13% were perpetrated by a stepfather
- 8% were perpetrated by a cousin
- 6% were perpetrated by a grandfather
- 4% were perpetrated by a mother 6 .
- Very few children (less than 1%) experienced abuse by professionals in a position of trust, for example a teacher, religious leader or care/social worker.
So, sexual abuse is more likely to happen in the home, or in the homes of families and friends than at the hands of a total stranger.
That is a frightening thought.
Where is the real danger, then?
Sue Palmer, in her book Toxic Childhood – How the Modern World is Damaging our Chidlren and What We Can Do About It warns that reading the news is much better than watching it. She says that having the picture of disasters and distressing occurences streamed in to our homes (on repeat, often) increases fear and induces feelings of anxiety as we go through the ‘that could have been my child’ emotions. She goes on:
Television coverage of horrific news about children and families forces parents to confront their worst fears over and over again. The fact that this coverage continues remorselessly, night and day, in the corner of one’s own living room – or the bedroom just before sleep – makes it even more powerful. So, even though we know the chances of our children being murdered by a maniac, hit by a sniper’s bullet or taken from us by some terrible natural disaster are infinitesimally small, we are still afraid. We have fallen victim to the worst fear of all: fear of fear itself.
Isn’t it better for us to teach our children which strangers to talk to, and what to avoid. Isn’t it better to teach our children which situations to enter into, and which not?
And isn’t it better to let our children believe, rightly, that there are more good people in the world than bad, and to help them know that they can always tell someone, even if for any reason they cannot speak to us?
Just to add, this is in no way suggesting that ‘Stranger Danger’ is not real! The child abduction statistics for the US , South Africa and the UK prove that. We have to keep our children safe. We have toÂ keep them close. But we have to teach them that the enemy isn’t everyone we don’t know, without making them afraid of everyone.
Where Is The Danger Coming From?
A difficult subject and one that my husband and I often disagree on. We haven’t yet tackled this subject with Lily as she is too young but it is always in the back of my mind. You are right about the news though, they love to portray the bad in everyone and everything – happy news stories just aren’t as interesting I guess!
This is such a touchy subject because on the one hand, our kids need to know they shouldn’t ever wander off with anyone they don’t know, but on the other if they are afraid of strangers will they approach a policeman or someone else if they get lost in a department store and need help?
A part of me wonders if the “stranger danger” craze that developed during the 1970s and 1980s isn’t part of why people don’t talk to each other anymore on a social level. It’s like everyone’s afraid of everyone else, so we just pull inside our shells and say nothing at all.
@Jenny H, I agree. I wonder whether it’s not part of the problem, as you say. I was at a playarea with my daughter last week and she was standing at the gate pulling at the bars. A man was standing at the gate watching his son and my little girl was ‘talking’ to him and he completely ignored her. I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t because of that whole ‘what would people say’ about him talking to her. I think you’re right though – we are the adults of the don’t talk to strangers generation.
Thanks so much for your comment 🙂
This is really tough. Where I grew up, we smiled at people in the street, said hello to people (particularly our elders), and it was seen to be polite. When we moved down south, I was looked at as if I was mad when I did it!
I talk to strangers. And so, therefore, does Moo. There’s a difference between being polite and social, and putting yourself in danger. It’s a difficult thing to teach. But it’s something we have to teach by the way we are when we’re with our children, and making sure they have experienced these exchanges with us, before they are in a position when they might experience them without us.
I fear that if we teach our children that no-one can be trusted, we will continue to fragment our society. I think in most circumstances, everyone else’s mum still does look out for everyone else’s child. But becuase of stranger danger we’ve been discouraged from doing so! I refuse to go down that route. If I see a lost child in the supermarket, I will try to help him, but without letting him think I am trying to take him away.
We have to modify our behaviour, but I really hope we don’t destroy our children’s ability to trust.
(sorry for the long comment!)
@Bumbling, similar thoughts. Thank you for sharing your views. I completely agree – I couldn’t leave a child. I guess because I hope someone would do the same for Ameli if need be. And yes, you are right. We teach by doing.
Oh, and I love long comments 🙂 Thank you for taking the time 🙂
Ever since they did a stranger danger class at school my son admonishes me when I talk to anyone whose name I don’t know. We’re in a store and I laugh with another woman over the way our carts collided and he says “what’s her name, Mommy? You don’t know! She’s a stranger!”
I’ve tried to explain good strangers and bad strangers to him. But it’s been drilled into him that all strangers are potentially dangerous. Meanwhile, I discovered him perfectly willing to let a family friend (who had no need or right to) bathe him. (Needless to say – no longer a friend)
We need to teach our children about intentions, not people and what is and is not acceptable from everyone. My kids have been taught that you never approach someone trying to talk to you from a car, but if you’re at the playground or in a store and there are lots of other people around, including Mommy, you can talk to them. You never go with them. If they try to take you, you scream, kick and bite.
The biggest worry is that because of stranger danger awareness, children will not go to a stranger when they need help! If they’re running from an abductor or are lost they need to know that they can and should ask for help. One thing I’ve always told them is to look for another mom.
@Dara, Yip! I think you’ll find my follow on topic to this one to be very relevant to your comment. I’ll probably post it next week. I think it’s REALLY important to teach kids about what TYPE of stranger to go to. The problem is the same in reverse: We were at legoland a while ago and there was this kid standing in the walkway sobbing. A little boy about 4 or so years old, looking around and lost, and all these people were looking at him and walking past, or scurrying past. It really upset me. I bent down and asked him where his mommy was(at home)and his daddy was and he said he didn’t know. I walked him to some staff who took him to the missing children meeting point, but it did leave a mark on me. Not only didn’t he know who to look for, who to talk to, or what to do! And people don’t want to get involved, you know, in case anyone thinks something. I think its terrible.
@Luschka, Oop – I really should have read your reply before I posted mine! V similar thoughts x
I haven’t ever really thought about this at all but Emily is only 8 months! We were brought up in quite a social atmosphere at met lots of ‘strangers’ so I suppose that gut instinct told us these folk were fine and could be trusted. Those were also the days though where everyone else’s mum looked out for you though.
You raise a good point. I dont teach my kids not to talk to strangers when they are with me. they are young still (4, 3 & 18mo) so i havent really gotten ‘there’ yet but i hope to help them learn to listen & trust their instinct – their gut. For me it has never been wrong.
Interesting one. I have similar issues. Wait until she’s at pre-school, when they’ll do Stranger Danger as a topic. Rosemary did this a while before the end of term. On the way home, we were waking along chatting and she suddenly stopped and grabbed onto my legs and said ‘There’s a stranger! There’s a stranger!’ We try to provide her with a balance, but are really not big on putting across fear of strangers. Of course, bad things happen, but I don’t think we can walk around in fear and allow our children to do so. There’s plenty more things to fear, as well. We pretty much stick with don’t get into a car with someone you don’t know, unless it’s a police officer, we’ve said it’s OK or your teacher has said it’s OK. For everything else, we encourage her to be friendly and polite, and to expect and hope for the same in return.
It is difficult, though, especially as we are bombarded by media coverage of when things do go bad. I tend not to read the stories about the really bad things, though. And I don’t watch the news on TV – it really is too horrible. I just get my news from the headlines on the BBC news site and click through when I want to know more, and search online when I want to know a lot more.