The Downside of Stranger Danger

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Lenore Skenazy on Parentdish recently wrote ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is dangerous advice in which she suggests that rather than teaching our children not to talk to strangers, we should teach them which strangers to turn to.
Talking about a little girl whose mother rushed her away from a middle aged woman shopping for swimming costumes, she says:

Let’s say that some day that girl really does find herself in a tight spot. To jump to the ultimate nightmare, let’s even say that one day there’s a van following her — a white one, without windows (the predator’s vehicle of choice). The girl can keep walking, trusting no one and hoping to God she’s safe. Or, she can run to the stranger pruning his hedges and say, “Let me stand next to you till that guy leaves!” She can run into the store and tell a stranger, “Call 911!” She doesn’t have to wait for a policeman. She can ask for — and get! — help from any stranger because the vast majority of strangers are not predators. They’re like you and me.

This approach makes so much more sense to me, as it does to many readers, it seems.

She’s not saying my daughter should go in to the house with the man pruning his hedges. She’s not saying go in to the back office with the store clerk. She’s saying teach your child what’s safe and what’s not.

I finished school at seventeen. The day after my last official day, I walked to school at 10 am to go and collect some things I had left behind. We lived in a safe, quiet neighbourhood and I had walked to school every day of the year we lived there.

That day, a car passed me on the street and I thought nothing of it.

A few minutes later, the same car passed me on the street, slowing as it went by, but without thinking about it, I assumed that he was looking for something.

He came round a third time and stopped half way up the hill and climbed out his car. It really didn’t occur to me, naïve as I was at the time, that he was undoing his belt. In fact, I didn’t even think anything when he hopped in his car again and took off up the road. The first I thought anything was really suspicious, was when he stopped again, got out his car again and looking at me, stuck his hand in his pants.

I don’t know what I thought would happen if I walked past him, or what I thought he would do but my gut drove me across the road to a house I had never been to where strangers lived. I knocked on the door and an African lady answered the door and without saying a word, let me in the house. The police were called, but nothing ever came of it, since I didn’t even have the license plate.

When my parents later stopped by the house to thank them, the owners said that it was all very surprising because in ten years of working for them, their cleaner had never opened the door for anyone. It had been the look on my face that had told her that, in her words ‘ a child needed help’.

I certainly don’t recommend that a child walk in to a stranger’s house on any given day, but I think it’s so important that we teach our children the difference between a stranger, and a dangerous stranger or at least a dangerous situation (judging by appearance doesn’t really work either!). I am certainly glad my parents did, or who knows how this story may have ended.

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17 thoughts on “The Downside of Stranger Danger

  1. TrishaSmith

    Today it is vitally important that adults know the whereabouts of their children at all times. Furthermore we have the responsibility to teach our children in a non-threatening way, how to stay safe and do all they can to protect themselves when in public places. The idea of my children being harmed or lost is not something anyone wants to consider. I found an article by anationofmoms about a service that can protect your family via your cell phone. And, at the bottom there is an opportunity to enter a drawing for 6 months of that service just by liking them on Facebook. You might find it interesting

  2. Nadja

    My sister’s advice to her girls in case they got lost in a crowd: “Talk to another mummy.”

    • In theory I agree, but I was at Legoland about a year ago, a place thoroughly crowded with ‘other mummies’ and there was this boy of about four in the middle of the pathway, absolutely sobbing. People where literally making a wide berth around him. I have no idea how long he’d been there crying, but people actually LOOKED THE OTHER WAY! I was so upset by that! I went down on my haunches and asked him if he was lost and he was and didn’t know where his dad was. I took him by the hand to the people designated to deal with lost children, but I was utterly disgusted that people just ignored this obviously frantic child. Why? Because everyone’s afraid of being the ‘dodgy stranger’? 🙁

    • And to say – yes, it’s good advice to the children… I just hope the adult they approach has some common sense!

  3. We live in a scary world and I totally agree with the message that not everyone is a predator and we need to teach our kids who to turn to when they’re in trouble, rather than just scaring them off every stranger.

    This post really hits home because of an experience that I wasn’t sure whether to blog about but think I will soon as it might help others in the same situation. Thanks for posting.
    Babes about Town’s last blog post ..Bye Bye Baby

  4. Andrea

    We always tell our kids to stay away from strangers, and not take candy etc. But then we get to a party/ carnival/ event, and say to our child,” It’s okay, talk to the clown/ Santa, you can take the balloon/ candy” So basically we tell them, beware of strangers unless they are in costume. When my LO recently started running away from us in the shops, I told him that there are monsters around who want to take little kids away from their parents. I told him they are sneaky monsters, because they look just like everyone else, and they only way to stay safe is to stay with “his” adults (mommy, daddy, granny, grandpa, Aunt, uncle, cousin), And to scream as loud as he can if a sneaky monster tries to take him, because that scares them away. He’s only 3 but got the idea really quickly!

  5. A really good post, this has been close to my heart recently and I have too posted about similar, in that we must teach our kids to be aware of those who are known to the family. I will check out Eric’s link. Thanks, Mich x

  6. Eric Hsu

    Great blog post! I’m glad I’m not the only one speaking out against “stranger danger” and how it actually is dangerous for kids. You make an excellent point about kids not wanting to speak to clearly non-dangerous strangers even when it is in their best interests. I also know of a case involving a boy scout who was lost in the woods who actually hid from searchers because “they were strangers” causing the search for him to last many more days than it should have.

    I also believe stranger danger is dangerous for the following additional reasons:

    1. The vast majority (virtually all) cases of sexual abuse and kidnapping are NOT by strangers, they are by people that the child victims were familiar with. As such, stranger danger does not protect children from the vast majority of the cases.

    2. Children do not know how to gauge whether someone is a stranger or not. Take the example of the janitor at their school. They see the person every day but they are not known to the family. Is this person a stranger? Should they speak with the janitor? Stranger danger just leaves them confused.

    3. Children are so literal-minded that the message that “strangers are dangerous” naturally brings the opposite message that “non-strangers are not dangerous.” From the statistics of people who abuse children, we know this is clearly not the case.

    I believe in teaching children how to recognize Predator Danger Signs and situational awareness. I believe that stranger danger is a on size fits all, poorly designed program that actually makes our children less safe.

    I’ve posted a recent blog on this topic on my website. It is at http://www.tofoilapredator.com/blog/2010/8/2/stranger-danger-education-very-dangerous-for-kids.html in case you or any of your readers are interested.

    Thanks again for the great post. Your point is very well taken.

    Eric Hsu
    http://www.ToFoilaPredator.com
    “Helping Parents and Professionals Learn to Stop Predators BEFORE They Abuse Children”

  7. Jenny H

    This is something I’ve been considering writing about myself a lot lately. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we have to draw the line somewhere and find a strong way to convey the rules without scaring our kids from being afraid of everyone they come in contact with. As you mentioned before in your own statistical research, so many abductions and cases of abuse occur in the home or via someone the child already knows and feels semi-comfortable with. So scary. I wish there was an easier way.
    Jenny H’s last blog post ..Saturday Galllery- Baby Feet

  8. It’s sad, but someone in a uniform is not necessarily a good choice – predators know that as well as anyone else. In fact my step-son is a Police Officer and it is illegal for him to hang his uniform shirts outside on the washing line in case they are stolen and used. I prefer to think we can trust officers, so what I would add is that they generally come in pairs.
    I use the Mummy or Daddy example too – someone with children or someone who works in the shop.
    Deb’s last blog post ..People Participating in the Carbon Futures Challenge

  9. I too totally agree with this. Toby is too young to teach about these things yet, but one of my friends has an older daughter, and like katepickle, she tells her to go to somebody in a uniform, or who is working in a shop, or a mummy with children etc.

    • @Kathie Dapbim, Yes, this seems to be the best way of doing it – teaching them the right ‘situation’ ina way, rather than the right ‘appearance’.
      Thanks for commenting!

  10. I totally agree with you.
    I talk to my girls (who are 6) about who would be good people to ask for help if they ever needed it. The usual suggestions is ‘someone in a uniform’ but we’ve added in suggestions like ‘someone who is a mum like me, someone who has kids your age with them’ and other similar suggestions. Like you I want my children to have lots of options if they ever feel threatened.

    • @katepickle, That’s really good. I must say I find the ‘someone in uniform’ to be a predominently Western thing, where for the most part we/you still trust those authority figures and don’t expect corruption or further abuse from them. Although just discussing that with DH, he doesn’t actually agree with me and says that’s a major stereotype, so not sure what to think now! lol

      I do like the idea of talking about it directly though – I guess you could do it as a game, walking down the street, kind of thing? Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!

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