We tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers.” As parents, such advice makes us feel better, as if we’re keeping them safe from kidnapping or abduction, but how realistic is that piece of advice? If your children are walking home from school and get hurt or lost, are they supposed to sit mutely until you make your way to them?
Not so much.
While “Don’t talk to strangers” means well, it’s not a realistic message. Statistics show that children are more likely to be kidnapped or assaulted by someone they know than by a scary man who drives by in a white van. Granted it happens but not as often. Besides that, sometimes a parent is not available, and a child may need help from a stranger. It’s better to teach your children to be smart with strangers rather than forbidding them from ever talking to one.
Just what should children learn then?
- Go to a public place. A lost, hurt, or scared child is more likely to find help in a densely populated area than in a less visible residential area.
- Find a uniform. Good guys overwhelmingly wear uniforms. Police officers, firefighters, crossing guards, and even mail carriers are usually good choices.
- Find a mother with children. She is generally a safe bet. She will be empathetic and know just what to say and do to help.
- Find a well-maintained house with toys in the yard. Like the advice above, a lost child knocking on the door of a house that obviously has children is probably going to find someone who will help. Even if no one is home, if children seem to have reason to be there, a possible assault may be averted.
- Stay with a group. There’s safety in numbers.
- Stick to the routine. A detour or change in routine can make it hard to locate your children if something happens.
- Avoid adults who seek them out. THIS is where the “don’t talk to strangers” is important. An adult who tries to get a child’s attention with a pet or candy may be up to no good.
- Trust their instincts. Children need to know that if something feels wrong they need to get away from the situation and get help. They may be embarrassed or feel silly, but it’s important that they learn to trust their feelings.
- Be aware of the surroundings. If a strange car is following them, teach them to memorize the color and license plate. Look out for people who are in the same place at the same time every day for no obvious reason.
- Cause a scene. Children are often afraid to do this because they don’t want to get into trouble. In this case, they need to know that yelling and screaming in appropriate situations can get them the help and/or attention they need for the sake of safety.
- Don’t keep secrets. Reinforce to your children that adults should not ask them to keep secrets from parents. Tell them that you need to know if this ever happens.
Approach the topic matter-of-factly, but reinforce the message occasionally to make sure the message sinks in. Reassure your child that most people are good and don’t hurt children and that the bad people are few and far between, but being prepared is always a good thing.