How can I teach my child about strangers without making her unfriendly?

Q: My 6-year old is a very friendly and social child. She loves to talk to people and make new friends but it worries me that someday it might put her in a dangerous situation. How do I teach her not to talk to strangers without squashing her friendly spirit?

A: Young children are so innocent and joyful, so it is not uncommon for them to be friendly with people they don’t know. Parents walk that fine line between wanting their child to be nice to others while also worrying that a child will not be wary enough of strangers and will end up having something terrible happen to him. It’s one of the many things about parenting that gives us those lovely grey hairs.

Here are some tips to help parents negotiate that difficult balancing act:

Teach your child the rules about whom they can talk to. Make a list of the people who you feel comfortable about his talking to, and explain that he should not talk to other people without your permission.

Explain why you have these rules. Explain that unfortunately there are people who will try to hurt kids or do things to them that are not right, and that you want to make sure that he is safe. With that said, be sure to also discuss the positive aspects of people, and work to help him achieve an understanding that there are a lot of good people in addition to those who act wrong.

Supervise your child well, and make sure that he follows the guidelines you set. As situations arise, ask him to “decide” which people he can talk to and which he should not, giving him feedback on his “decisions” and praising him when he has made appropriate decisions.

As he gets older, continue to discuss these issues and monitor his behavior, and gradually increase his freedom as he shows more understanding and progress. Explain to him that the way to get to know someone is gradually, and that his level of trust of someone is something that builds over time and is earned by that person’s behavior. Continue to give feedback to help him understand any changes that he needs to make when he does make any poor decisions.

And take comfort in the fact that some day your kid will be a sullen teenager who will not say a civil word to anyone, so at least you have that to look forward to.

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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig

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