Q. Our son is a Boy Scout and we were recently shocked to hear of Brennan Hawkins, who resisted being rescued for four days because his parents had told him never to talk to strangers.
I think it's important for kids to know that strangers can be dangerous, but also to know that there will be times when you need to trust strangers to help you or bring you to safety. How can I make that distinction to my 10-year-old?
A. It's time for all parents to rethink using the line, "Don't talk to strangers." First of all, who is a stranger? A firefighter is a stranger, a neighbor might be a stranger, a clerk in a store is a stranger, and you are a stranger to many children. Yet a firefighter, neighbor, clerk, or you would help a child if lost, hurt, or frightened.
It's really not strangers that parents don't want their children to talk to; it's people who prey on children -- predators -- who parents want their children safe from. And children, particularly children under the age of 10, can't keep themselves safe from the wily ways of a child predator. That's why parents need to keep their young children as close to them as they do their purse, backpack, or briefcase.
Telling children never to talk to strangers gives parents false confidence that their children will be safe from people who might hurt them. Plus it puts the burden on children to keep themselves safe. Truly, it's the job of parents to protect children from people who might hurt them. Here are some ways you can do this, as written by Gavin de Becker in his book Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) (Dell, 2000).
Once a child approaches age 8, it's time to begin to coach children on how to manage themselves when on their own. Consider using these two ways of getting your child to think through potentially dangerous situations.
Thinking out loud involves explaining your thought processes when talking to people you don't know. After talking to a stranger in the grocery store you might say to your over-8-year-old child, "It was okay to talk to that man as we waited in line at the grocery store, but we would never leave the store with him or get into his car."
Hearing the rationale behind how you react to strangers in various situations -- when you, yourself, need help in a store or while driving -- and talking through how the other important people in your child's life -- relatives, caregivers, etc. -- have solved everyday problems helps your child internalize the aid-seeking process and become comfortable making his own decisions about his safety. Plus, this approach helps a child to manage himself with confidence when the time comes when he is old enough to be on his own in public.
The game What Would You Do If...? goes like this: "What would you do if we were at the mall and got separated?" Acceptable answers to explore include: Talking to a clerk, staying where you are and waiting for Mom or Dad to return, or asking a mom or dad with a stroller for help. This method explores various options that children can use when on their own in the community. You can make up various scenarios that might suit situations particular to your children and family.
When children are old enough to be on their own without adult supervision, the rule to drum into their heads is: Always travel in a group of three. There is safety in numbers.
Lastly, if you see a child lost, hurt, or frightened, don't ignore the child. Instead, approach the child, kneel down to the child's level and tell the child that you will stay with him until his mom or dad returns. Stay calm and signal for help to another adult, if necessary.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, July 2005.