Why 'Stranger Danger' Doesn't Work: Tips for Keeping Kids Safe From Predators
For years, "stranger danger" has been the catch phrase children have heard at school and at home. The goal of using it liberally: To make sure kids know that talking to people they don't know could lead to serious trouble, of course. But it's pretty much impossible for a mother or their child to navigate through life without talking to strangers -- at the grocery store, playground, while traveling, etc. Further, in many cases, harm is often done to children by people they actually know. (Consider Hannah Anderson, who knew her abductor or Elizabeth Smart, whose kidnapper had worked odd jobs at her house.)
In fact, a child is said to know the predator in many as 90 percent of sex abuse incidents, according to the Child Advocacy Center. That's a chilling stat, but it's also a case for doing away with the obviously outdated expression "stranger danger" and replacing it with language that will keep kids even safer.
Here, experts' top tips for talking to your children about steering clear of harm and danger -- whether it presents itself in the form of a stranger or not.
- Substitute the phrase "uh-oh feeling" for "stranger danger." An even better catch phrase than "stranger danger" is that "uh-oh feeling," notes Abbie Schiller, CEO of The Mother Company, the producer of The Safety Show. How to describe what this means to kids: "Say out loud, 'I have an uh-oh feeling about how that car is driving, so I’m going to stay away from them' or speak of times when you were little and had to listen to your 'uh-oh feeling' to keep yourself safe," advises Schiller.
- Encourage your child to express his feelings. Ultimately,
you want to help your child identify their "uh-oh feeling," and then,
feel safe opening up to you about it. "Children should be encouraged to
talk openly and freely to parents about their feelings, including their
gut feelings," recommends parenting and psychology expert Natasha R.W.
Eldridge, M.A. "Parents must be sure that they clearly communicate that
the child will never be in trouble if they tell on a
[predator]." That way, if your child signs online when he's not supposed
to and receives a chat request from a predator, he'll be more inclined
to speak up.
- Don't discourage your child from talking to strangers. As Schiller explains, "If a child gets lost -- and 7 out of 10 children will get lost in their lifetimes -- they need to talk to a stranger to help them become found again." Moms can prepare a child by teaching them that if they do get lost, they should identify and ask a "stranger" who happens to be mother, with her own kids, for help.
- Make saying "no" less taboo. Of course we want our kids to mind their manners and be polite, but at the same time, they should be reminded that it's completely okay to say "no" if something feels off. (See #1.) "Kids have to know how to say 'no' even to bigger kids or grown-ups when something doesn’t feel right," notes Schiller. "Statistically, children who have this information are at less risk since predators tend not to choose children who they think will be trouble or tell on them."
- Don't worry that the "danger" talk will freak them out. "Most parents are hesitant to talk to their kids about these topics, because we’re afraid it can open up a can of worms about horrific and scary and potentially real scenarios," says Schiller. But the truth is that arming kids with solutions and rules can be empowering for them. Framing it this way can help: "Let them know that they are safe and by knowing these rules they are helping to keep themselves even safer," notes Schiller.
- Keep it age approrpriate. "You can really take the wind out of a safety talk if you do it little by little," explains Schiller. She recommends that children as young as 18 months-2 years learn about their 'uh-oh feeling' (like any other feeling). Then, between ages 2-4, help them learn about their "private parts" and being the "boss of their bodies," meaning they have the right to say no to any kind of touch, even if it’s from someone they usually care about.
- Arm them with concrete info. By the time your child is 3 or 4, they should know what to do if they get lost. "They need to know your real name -- not 'mommy' or 'daddy' -- and can start to learn their phone number," she says. "And insist that they 'check first' with you before they go anywhere with anyone. Don’t think of this as a conversation, but rather as an ongoing dialogue about smart choices and solutions."
- Don't give them a limited idea of what a dangerous person might look or act like. "Parents should not create a visual of a stranger for children," advises Elridge. "Children should know that predators come in all genders, colors, shapes and sizes."
Do you use the term "stranger danger" when talking to your kids about safety?