Small Town Stranger Danger

When I was a child, I was home alone after school one winter day waiting for my mom to get back from work.  There was a knock on the door and outside there was this nice looking lady standing on our front porch.  I didn’t open the door because my mom wasn’t home.  The lady said she was a friend of my family, but I refused to let her in because to me she was a stranger.  She sat in her car during a snowstorm for what seemed like forever until my mom finally made her way home.

Guess what?  The lady that seemed like a stranger to me was really my mom’s friend.  I felt so bad for keeping her waiting outside in the cold, but both she and my mom agreed that I had done the right thing by not opening the door for a stranger.  I had been trained well growing up in the big city of Memphis.  Never trust a stranger.

Fast forward to today.  I live in the small town of Auburn, Alabama where we teach our children Southern hospitality.  Say hello or ‘War Eagle’ to complete strangers, especially if they are wearing orange and blue.  One of my childhood friends from Memphis visited me here recently.  We were taking pictures at Toomer’s Corner and put our purses down briefly on the sidewalk.  A guy walked by and as she dove for our purses she yelled “Quick get your purse!”  I stood there confused until she said, “Are you crazy, he could have stolen our purses!”  Never had that even crossed my mind.  I guess twenty years out of the big city has made me a little less careful than I need to be about strangers.

Sadly, even in a small town, we need to be aware of strangers and teach our children how to respond to them in a way that keeps them safe.  That fact hit home late last week when a man was spotted at several area schools in the parking lot allegedly watching children.  Parents like me who hadn’t been that concerned before suddenly began to feel an urgency to give our kids a crash course on stranger danger.

But before we talk to our children about stranger danger, we as parents need to keep a few things in mind.  Studies have consistently shown that people who hurt children are most often people that the child knows, many times even people in their own family, rather than complete strangers.  In fact, more than 75% of kidnappings are committed by family or acquaintances.

As parents we are more fearful of stranger abductions, like Leiby Kletzky, than we are about the more common kidnappings by family members or acquaintances. It’s only natural.  We think, no one my child knows will harm them, right?  Well, unfortunately the statistics say otherwise.  That’s why it’s just as important to teach our kids how to stay safe in general, from both strangers and people that they know.

It’s also important to educate our kids about stranger danger in a way that doesn’t make them so frightened that they will never want to leave the house!  When talking with your kids about strangers, you need to stay calm and matter of fact.  If you can’t remain calm when teaching them about stranger danger, you can’t expect them to be level headed if they ever are actually approached by a stranger!

Now you’re ready to teach your child about stranger danger.  Here’s how:

First things first, who is a stranger?  Strangers are ANYONE that you don’t know.  They’re not scary looking people, in fact they usually look like nice people.  But if you don’t know them then that makes them a stranger.  Strangers might even use your child’s name to trick them into thinking they know them, but if your child doesn’t actually know the person then they are still a stranger.  There’s a quick online quiz that goes through pictures asking “Is this person a stranger?”  The answer to all of the questions is YES, and it’s neat to show your child how normal strangers can look.

Next, tell your child that “most strangers are good, but there are some bad strangers who might try to hurt you.”  Explain that “they might try to touch you in a way that is bad or they might try to take you away from your parents and hurt you.  Again, most strangers aren’t like this, but it’s important to know what to do if you are approached by a stranger so that you can stay safe.”  Good strangers will usually approach a child only when a parent is around and can tell the child whether the person is safe or not.  Bad strangers, on the other hand, usually approach children when they are alone or without their parent.

The most important thing to teach your child about strangers is NOT to go anywhere with them.  Bad strangers might try to get children to go into their car or go to a private location.  Teach your children that they need yell, bite, kick, and scream to get away from a stranger who tries to take them somewhere.  Stay far away from their car and turn and run away (screaming) if possible.  Make sure they know they will NOT get into trouble for doing this, since it’s exactly the opposite of what we usually teach our children about good manners, especially in a small town.

You also need to tell your children that bad strangers will make up lies to try to trick children into going with them.  They might use any of the following: “Your mom is sick and asked me to give you a ride,” “I need directions, can you help me,” “I’ve lost my puppy, can you look for him with me,” “You have to come with me now or your whole family will be killed,” or “You’re so pretty, I’m a photographer and would like to take your picture for a magazine.”  Teach your children NEVER to fall for these tricks.  Role play with them about these scenarios and let them know that you would NEVER send a stranger to get them in the event of an emergency.  Another good tip is telling your kids that adults wouldn’t ask a child for help, they would ask another adult.  So, if an adult is asking a child for help then that should be a signal to the child that they need to get away!

Last but not least teach your children who to look for if they are not with you and are approached by a stranger or get lost.  Get as far away from the stranger as quickly as possible and find a safe adult to get help.  They can ask for help from another adult that that they know, a store clerk, policeman, teacher, neighbor, or another mom with small children.  Teach them your cell phone number so that they can always know how to reach you if they are separated from you.

There’s more we can all do to educate our kids on staying safe, but these five tips are a good start to a lifelong conversation about stranger danger.  For more information, check out this video clip on teaching this valuable lesson to kids:

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About Dr. Polly Dunn

Child clinical psychologist, wife, and mom of four blogging about her 'Perfectly Imperfect' parenting solutions.

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