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Security Check: 5 Rules for Stranger Safety

You're always happy to see your child bound up to another kid on the playground and make a new pal. But it's a little unnerving when your preschooler approaches an adult he doesn't know and starts chatting away. "Social skills and independence blossom at ages 4 and 5," says Charles Shubin, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. "Even a kid who used to hide behind your leg six months ago may now feel comfortable engaging anybody and everybody she meets."

That makes these years prime time to talk about safety. But many parents don't know exactly what to say. Young kids can be frightened if you don't choose your words carefully. And they can misinterpret well-intentioned warnings about strangers, secrets, and other safety issues. So it's smart to establish specific rules and explain them in a nonthreatening way. If you're feeling tongue-tied, our advice can help get the ball rolling.

Say: Check with me or your dad or your babysitter before talking to another grown-up.

"The concept of a stranger can be hard for a young child to grasp," says Nancy McBride, safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia.

"For instance, your kid may see the clerk at the bank more often than he sees his aunt who lives across the country." So rather than relying on a 4-year-old's interpretation, McBride says it's best to have your child get permission from you before he strikes up a conversation or goes anywhere with any adult other than his parents. You could instruct your child to ask if it's okay or to look at you and you'll nod or shake your head.

Say: If you get lost in a store, stay in the building and find someone with a name tag to help you.

It's practically impossible for a scared child to be able to make a judgment about whom to trust, so kids will sometimes look outside the store for their parents, says Joselle Shea, director of children and youth initiatives at the National Crime Prevention Council, in Arlington, Virginia. Be very clear that you want your child to remain in the building and ask someone who works at the store to help him find you. The next time you're out together, play a game to see how many employee name tags your child can spot -- and point out that they'll usually be on workers by the cash registers. Go one better: Start teaching your child his first and last name, his parents' first and last names, and the family phone number so he can give them to the employee. "Most kids can begin learning these facts at age 4 and master them by age 5," says Shea.

Say: Don't take anything from anyone except your parents, babysitter, teacher, or friend's mom or dad on a playdate.

"Kids this age are very literal," says Dr. Shubin. "So when you warn them not to accept candy, they're not likely to interpret it to also mean that they shouldn't take a balloon or crayons." So it's best to tell your child to check with you before accepting anything. To make sure your kid gets it, role-play a few scenarios. For instance, pretend to be a stranger who asks your child if she wants a cookie. Even if your daughter says "No thanks," see how she'll react when pushed. Counter with "I asked your mom and she thinks it's okay" to see whether she'll give in or hold firm.

Say: Don't go where you can't see me.

"When you ask some children who wandered off from their parents why they strayed away, they'll tell you they thought their parents could still see them," says Michelle Lubahn, health and wellness coordinator for Children's Hospital of Orange County, in Orange, California. That's why kids need specific boundaries. "If you're at the park, for example, you may tell them 'You can play on the swings and slides here. But if you want to go elsewhere, tell me and I'll come with you,'" says Lubahn.

Say: A surprise is the only secret that's okay to keep.

Some parents use the two terms interchangeably -- and that confuses kids. If you tell your child to keep a secret about Daddy's birthday gift or Grandma's party, you are undermining the rule that no grown-up should ever tell you to keep a secret from your mom or dad. At this age, especially, you want to send the unambiguous message that Mom and Dad have a right to know everything anyone says or does to him.

Be careful not to undermine the safety lessons you've taught your kids. Take these three precautions:

  • Avoid talking to a child you don't know. Address the parent instead. Otherwise, your kids might think that it's okay for strangers to talk to them.
  • Even though it's cute, resist monogramming your child's name on his backpack or clothes. If a stranger addresses your kid by name, he may think he knows the person.
  • Don't push your preschooler to give a hug to anyone -- even relatives. Children need to realize that it's okay to say "no" when they feel uncomfortable.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Parents magazine.