Growing up, I was taught to never talk to strangers.
I was warned about the dubious man driving a white, windowless van who coaxes children inside by saying he was sent to bring them home. I was told about the shifty grownup holding a dog leash who asks kids to come help look for a missing puppy. And I was alerted to the mean-looking person who coaxes kids away from the playground with a handful of candy.
I was taught all about “stranger danger” — a simple, nursery room rhyming phrase for a nefarious notion. Sound familiar? The concept has circulated for more than 50 years, but nationwide panic around a supposed epidemic of child kidnappings and murders reached its peak in the 1980s when newspapers crafted hysteria-inducing headlines and pictures of missing kids lined milk cartons.
A child of the ’80s, I remained vigilant. I distrusted people I didn’t know. In fact, I feared them. And, thanks to my education in stranger danger, I was never fooled by their tricks. I never got into the back of an unmarked van or accepted candy from strangers … except for, obviously, on Halloween.
By the time I had my own children a handful of years ago, I’d realized “stranger danger” was ill-informed.
Child abuse by strangers, it turned out, is rare: More than 90% of harm to kids comes from people the children already know. Only 7% of children are sexually abused by a stranger, according to Psychology Today. Most missing children are abducted by family members.
Still, “stranger danger” remains a predominant strategy in child safety education.
Just this past spring, my kindergartner’s class had a visit from a local police officer. She stood in front of a room full of 5- and 6-year-olds and gave the same warnings I was once given. She then handed each of them an “Officer Friendly” coloring book, complete with a four-page section on stranger danger that looked identical to something I would have been given 30 years ago.
It’s Not About Stranger Danger, It’s About Tricky People
Even in the off-chance the blanket statement about stranger danger rings true, leading child safety experts do not recommend teaching kids in this way.
“Stranger danger is not just ineffective, it’s harmful,” says Pattie Fitzgerald, a renowned child safety educator and founder of Safely Ever After. “It’s a fear-based tactic that instills absolutely no confidence in children. It makes them incredibly wary of people they don’t know and more susceptible to people who could pose a threat.”
She cited cases in which lost children delay their own rescue because they were afraid to ask the help of a safe stranger as well as instances in which children ostensibly over-correct and put more trust in “tricky people” that they do know.
The term “tricky people,” Fitzgerald says, is a more nuanced approach with the added benefit of being far less scary. It empowers even young children to think more critically. “Kids hate to be tricked, so it’s more affirming to teach them about tricky people who give us an ‘uh oh’ feeling and break our rules.”
In essence, instead of being on the lookout for strangers, we should be zeroing in on strange behavior. And this can come from, as Fitzgerald notes, “the soccer coach, the uncle, the family friend, the next-door neighbor, the gym teacher.”
The realization that genuine risk could actually be lurking at your child’s school or at a birthday party can feel daunting, but Fitzgerald assures parents they — and their children — are in control.
“The two things these tricky people need are access and privacy,” she says. “Be smart about who is allowed those privileges and pay attention to who is paying attention to your kid.”
If any encounter seems off — if Uncle Charlie sneaks your kiddo a “secret” $20 bill, if the tennis coach suggests taking your kid out for ice cream after practice as a reward or if the neighbor makes a crude comment about your child’s body — listen to your instincts. Make a mental note to yourself that this person isn’t someone you should trust, for instance, to watch your child for a few minutes while you run a quick errand.
Although some encounters — like when a neighbor actually called Fitzgerald’s 4-year-old daughter “sexy” — offer clear red flags, not every scenario is so cut and dry for parents.
We may feel left to wonder: Do I need to be concerned when Grandma tells my kids to keep that extra scoop of ice cream a secret? Do I need to quit Little League because the coach is so complimentary of my kid? Do I need to form a blacklist of all the relatives who ask my kid for hugs?
Of course not, Fitzgerald says: “Simply ask yourself, ‘does this make sense? Is this person going out of their lane, little by little, with my child? A soccer coach can compliment you on your kid all day long, but if they suggest you drop her off for a private practice, that doesn’t make sense. It’s OK that Cousin Joe plays so well with all the little kids, but if he’s the only grownup upstairs with them, that doesn’t make sense.”
Parents should speak up when these warning signs flash in their minds.
“One of the main things that stops a child predator is the fear of getting caught,” she says. “If they know you are one of those pesky parents who is paying attention, they are much less likely to continue making attempts with your child.”
Of course, tricky people aren’t always nefarious — you may never know if their strange behavior would have led to something worse. Still, “state your truth without blame or judgment,” she says. “You can say that they are blurring a boundary and it’s inappropriate, or you can tell your cousin, ‘All the kids are upstairs playing Barbie dolls, you don’t need to be there.’ A simple ‘no’ or ‘stop’ gets the job done, too.”
How to Empower Kids to Stay Safe Among Tricky People
It’s not just parents who are able to take control in these situations. Unlike with stranger danger, which operated under the assumption that children weren’t equipped to manage their own safety, this modern “tricky people” approach grants them agency, from a very young age.
Although it’s never too early to teach children about body autonomy — from using anatomical terms for their private parts versus cutesy names to modeling the foundations of consent — preschoolers can start to grasp these concepts with simple, age-appropriate messaging.
“That messaging can and should change over time,” says Fitzgerald, who published two children’s books on safety, No Trespassing: This Is My Body and Super Duper Safety School. “It’s important to have ongoing conversations that evolve as they age. And not just with language, but parents will need to eventually address safety rules concerning things like the internet and social media. Tricky people are even trickier online.”
Whatever you do, Fitzgerald says, don’t leave these safety lessons to someone else. Don’t assume a 20-minute visit from a police officer teaching “stranger danger” is enough.
“We used to put babies in cars without car seats,” she says. “Did most of them survive? Yes. But is there a better way? Absolutely. The same thing applies with child safety. There’s a better way to arm our kids than to throw them out into the world and cross our fingers.”
Unsure where to start?
Fitzgerald recommends parents teach their kids a few top safety tips:
“Strangers can still be tricky people!”
Grownups don’t approach children or ask them for help. Children should see this as a strange behavior and find a trusted adult immediately.
“Look for safe strangers when you need help.”
Teach your kids to seek out identifiable markers of a safe adult. A security guard with a badge, a store clerk in a uniform or a mother with a baby.
“You don’t have to be too polite.”
If someone is making your child feel scared or “yucky,” they should feel comfortable telling them so.
“Always check first.”
As much as you may want to trust your kids to make good choices, you should always be kept in the loop. If your kiddo wants to do something unplanned, they should know they need their parent’s permission. If they’re playing in the front yard and they hear the ice cream truck approaching, they should check with you first before running up to peruse the merchandise. If a teacher offers them a special gift, they should ask their parents if it’s OK to keep it. If they can’t check first, teach them that the answer is “no.”
“Trust your gut.”
Often, without realizing it, parents normalize strange behaviors or tricky people. “Oh, that’s just how Mr. Newton is,” they may say. According to Fitzgerald, the more you talk your kids out of those “uh-oh” feelings, the less likely their gut instinct will engage — and the less likely they’ll come to you when it does.
“We don’t keep secrets.”
Grandma giving you an extra cookie isn’t a secret. Nor is not telling Daddy what his birthday present is going to be. Those are surprises. Teach your kids the difference and remind them that they never keep secrets from their parents.
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