The Danger of Stranger Danger

Welcome back, Dear Reader, to our week-long discussion of child abductions. Last time, we looked at the Very Interesting World of Numbers and saw that while most parents fear that their child will be kidnapped by a stranger, the reality is that such a scenario is extremely rare. In most cases, a missing child hasn’t been taken by anyone — they are runaways, throwaways*, or their parents just don’t know where they are. In cases where a child has been taken, it’s far more likely to be by someone they know than by a stranger. Often, it’s a custodial interference situation where one parent has taken the child away from the other, or the child’s legal guardian.

Which isn’t to say that our children don’t face very real dangers from the big, bad world. So what’s a parent to do? What strategies can we employ and teach our kids that can help them be safer?

[Hang on. Speaking of child safety I just saw something tumble off the couch onto the floor near where little Z is… Okay, everyone’s off the baby now.]

Many of us fall back on the old “don’t talk to strangers” routine. If I’m not mistaken, the first mom in the video I discussed last time said she tells her daughter every day not to talk to strangers. It didn’t work for her, though, and it’s not likely to work for anyone else. After all, our kids see us break that rule every day, don’t they? And we encourage them to break it, too.

“Oh, she’s just being shy today,” we say. “Now, honey, the nice man/my friend from college/our minister/the grocery clerk we see every week/your sister’s teacher/our new neighbor/the policeman/that old woman/the cheerful waiter/my cousin who never visits/the vaguely creepy guy in line behind us asked you your name. Answer him, please; don’t be rude.”

All of those people are strangers to your child, even if they aren’t to you. (And, yes, any of those people might be capable of abusing or kidnapping your child, even the ones you already know.) Insisting that your child talks to some strangers while telling them not to talk to any strangers just confuses them and erodes your credibility. Anyhow, children learn from watching adults, and they can see that you don’t run away shouting “stranger danger!” whenever someone you don’t know talks to you. And why don’t you?

Seriously, think about it for a moment. Adults get assaulted and robbed and kidnapped by people they don’t know, right? Happens all the time. So the next time a stranger talks to you in the grocery, how to do know they aren’t about to pull out a weapon and ruin your day?

Well, you have several years of experience dealing with human beings that help you judge these things. Drawing upon your knowledge of body language, facial expression, and the context of your surroundings you decide that this guy isn’t about to pull out a trench knife and gut you like a fish in the middle of the store.

Though, if you’re a woman, you would probably have warning bells go off if you were to notice him following you out to your car. That’s because you know what behaviors might lead to danger and can take action before the danger happens. That is what will keep your child safe, too.

Kids don’t need to be afraid of all strangers, they need to be able to make accurate assessments of them and to be able to understand when something isn’t right. In order to do that, they need a baseline to know what “normal” is, which can only be gained by interacting with people. In fact, teaching your kids how to talk to strangers, rather than to always avoid them, is a better safety strategy, especially if they ever need help and you’re not around.

(By the way, in addition to “don’t talk to strangers” parents often tell their children to seek out a policeman if they are lost or need help. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Just to name one, where we live you almost never see a police officer just standing around, waiting for someone to come to him with a problem. In order to get help from the police, a kid would need to be able to dial 911 and then describe where they are — or approach an adult and ask them to do that for them, in which case we’re back to talking to strangers. Instead, teach your children that if they are separated from you and need help they should go find a woman. They’re much more likely to be able to locate one quickly and women are far more likely than men to stay with a child until they get the help they need.)

As a way to give her experience interacting with adults she doesn’t know, and because it’s a good way for her to learn important social skills, we will often let RU (and, more recently, even MeToo) tell the waiter her order at restaurants. After we’ve helped her decide what she’s having, of course. Every now and then we have her handle paying for something while we stand behind her and give her help if she needs it.

[Me: “Honey, what else do we do to help the kids get used to dealing with strangers? I’ve mentioned that we let them order their food and sometimes we let RU pay at a register. What else?”

The Wife: “We also model talking to strangers ourselves.”

MeToo: “RU not like strangers.”

The Wife: “RU doesn’t like strangers?”

MeToo: “No. I — I like strangers.”

The Wife: “You talk to them a lot don’t you?”

MeToo: “Yeah!”]

My kids are all under five, so they’re too young to be responsible for their own safety, anyway. It’s not their job to be on the lookout for possible kidnappers or other dangers, it’s mine. If I may return to the “social experiment” video I talked about last time, did those kids look old enough to be responsible for themselves? No, of course not. Had a similar situation happened to my child** and a stranger with a cute little dog started talking to her on the playground, I would not be worried for her. That’s not because I know she wouldn’t talk to a stranger but because if my child is at the park, I will be nearby where I can see her. If I’m sitting on a bench, it will be a bench that affords good sight lines and is between my child and the nearest exit. I’m not worried about any stranger approaching my child because I will be there to intervene (and may Mr. T have pity on them, because I sure won’t).

One day, my kids will be old enough to be an active partner in keeping them safe. I’m trying to raise them to become independent, confident, competent adults (ideally, adults who are better at life than those around them and who have an appreciation of the classics). The kinds of skills they will need for that are the same ones that will help them be safer in the world while they’re still young.

Which is what I want to talk about next (same Dad-time, same Dad-channel).

*This is not my word. It is apparently the term for kids whose parents threw them out of the house and have no place to go. Doesn’t that make you want to punch someone in the mouth?

**And if someone approaches me in public about letting my child be a part of their social experiment, I would turn them down. If I were to say yes, it would only be so that I could step in and put an end to it just as if it were the real thing. I’m not going to let anyone I don’t know and trust lead my kid away, even if it’s just for a social experiment or whatever. My kid doesn’t need to have that experience. Besides, if you’ll watch the video again, you’ll notice we never see the boy in the dark blue outfit with white stripes again after he’s lead away. We never see him being returned to his mom… Joey Salads claims another victim…