Like many from my generation, I grew up under the shadow of the four-word mantra: “Don’t talk to strangers.” When I was a girl, news accounts of kidnapped children seeped into my nightmares. Now, as a parent, they terrify me in a new way. But my incoming kindergartner and her little brother love chatting with adults. They strike up conversations with strangers at the grocery store, in the park, or on our walk to school. I love that my kids are friendly, but sometimes I worry that they’re too open. When you talk to your kids about strangers, this is the right balance to strike.
Experts say that it’s best not to use the word “stranger” at all. Instead, try using the term “tricky people,” suggests Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of a child-safety organization called Safely Ever After, Inc. “Tricky people” are grown-ups—both familiar and unknown—who try to trick children into breaking the rules of safety. The term is especially important because young children implicitly trust kind grown-ups, Fitzgerald says. “The strangers we’re all so afraid of are not going to be scary like we imagine them,” she says. “They’re going to be friendly and charming; they’re going to have a toy or a puppy.” A couple of years ago, Joey Salads, a YouTube star known for his pranks and social experiments, decided to show how easy it would be to abduct a child using an ice-cream truck. After getting their parents’ permission, he invited several children to climb into his truck for free ice cream. As the parents watched, almost all of the kids did so without any hesitation.
To make sure your kid knows the right thing to do, go over specific scenarios, recommends Betsy Brown Braun, a child-development and behavior specialist and author of Just Tell Me What to Say. Pose questions like: “What if a grown-up offered you candy? What if a grown-up asked you to help him find a lost puppy?” See how she answers, then explain, “Just like you don’t pet a dog you don’t know, you don’t talk to people you don’t know when you’re not with me or Daddy or another adult you trust.”
If your child wonders why she can’t take the candy or search for the puppy, stay away from comments like, “Somebody might try to take you.” Instead, you could say: “While most people are good, there are some people who are not and do not keep kids safe.” Instill a blanket rule that your children should never go anywhere, with anyone, without asking for permission.
For the kindergarten set, safety rules are best learned through muscle memory. Physically act out different scenarios with your child to help them stick, suggests Sherryll Kraizer, Ph.D., founder and director of the Coalition for Children in Denver and author of The Safe Child Book. When you do this role-playing, do your best to keep it low-key and fun. “Because parents know what’s at stake, they can often come across more serious than is good for kids,” says Dr. Kraizer.
Sometimes, of course, kids will need to turn to strangers for help. So it’s useful to go over rules for those kinds of situations too. Tell your kid that if he ever gets separated from you in public, he should look first for an employee (a cashier in a store, for example). If that’s not possible, he should then look for another mom with children.
You should also teach your child to trust her gut; Braun calls this listening to the “uh-oh” feeling. And that’s not only with strangers but also with familiar people since most sexual abuse of children is done by an adult whom a child already knows.
Amber Ledergerber, a second-grade teacher in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, tells her 5-year-old son and his big sister: “If you start feeling weird in your stomach, you should listen to it. Get away from whoever is making you feel that way and tell an adult you trust right away.” She also keeps a list of family rules posted on her refrigerator, including Rule #8: “We don’t keep secrets in our family. If someone tells you to keep a secret, tell an adult.”
Kristy Adams also tries to make sure her kids know that their wishes are important, no matter whom they’re talking to. A mom of three, Adams is married to a lawyer in the Marines. The family moves every few years, which has given her a unique perspective on how attitudes toward strangers vary around the country. In Northern California, it’s accepted that children won’t be too friendly to folks they don’t know. But in rural North Carolina, children are expected to be well-mannered and obey adults, whether or not they know them, Adams says. “If someone asks for a hug, a child is required to give that person a hug.” Sometimes her kids are not comfortable with that and the adults ignore them. In those cases, Adams tells her kids to say what they feel, even if it means saying no to an adult. It’s always better to deal with a little awkwardness from the offended grown-up, she says, if it means that her children will be empowered to protect themselves down the line.