What You Might Not Know About ‘Stranger Danger’

Adam Walsh. Polly Klaas. Elizabeth Smart. Jessica Lunsford. Madeleine McCann.

Children are abducted by total strangers so rarely that when it happens, their names are seared into our consciousness forever.

Here’s the trouble: when we teach children about safety practices, most of what we say involves “stranger danger”, even though stranger abduction is rare. We give them little to no guidance when it comes to avoiding more common offenses, like sexual assault by a friend or relative.

The Problem with Stranger Danger

I’d like “stranger danger” to be tossed aside. It’s unhelpful and confusing. There’s a better way to teach kids about safety, and while it’s a tiny bit more complicated, in the end it gives them the information they need to make good decisions about personal safety.

Let’s talk a little bit more about “stranger danger”. Why doesn’t it work? Aside from the fact that stranger abduction is extremely rare, the bottom line is that the word “stranger” triggers a certain feeling in children. They picture someone ugly and mean-looking who could be identified from a mile away as an unsafe person.

It’s Hard to Tell Just by Looking

To most children, a friendly person is automatically a friend, not a stranger. Simply saying hello to someone (and having it said back in return) makes them think they know this person. This is especially true if it’s someone they see around from time to time, like a neighbor down the block. But they don’t realize that the person in question is still, essentially, a stranger. And you can’t always tell if someone is bad or good by how they look.

My children have both attended a program at our park district called “Safety Town”. It’s a two-week summer session intended to teach kids about all kinds of safety. They cover swimming safety, bus safety, traffic safety, winter safety, and more. I think it’s fantastic. Except…except for the day they spend on stranger safety.

After a local police officer talks to the children about stranger danger, they are given a coloring book with pictures of potential scenes (a stranger offering candy; a stranger asking a child to help him look for his missing puppy). The stranger is drawn in a way that is purposely creepy and scary looking! What a disservice. This reinforces the idea that someone bad can be identified as such based on looks, and that someone nice looking couldn’t possibly be bad.

What Kids Really Need to Know

Is there a better way? There absolutely is, and I’m determined to spread the word about it. This new way of teaching safety was developed by Julie Clark (founder of Baby Einstein) and John Walsh (of America’s Most Wanted fame). Together, they’ve come up with a way for kids to put the adults in their lives into three categories:

1. The “Safe Adults”. This is a very small group, consisting only of the child’s parents, a grandparent or two, and a trusted friend. The parents will determine who goes in this group and teach their child exactly who belongs in this group. It’s best to keep this group to 3-4 people.

This people in this “Safe Adults” group are the ONLY people that the child is allowed to go with when leaving school, church, or any other place. If they are playing at a park and someone they know (who is not a Safe Adult) pulls the car up and asks them to hop in, they DON’T go.

That’s because of group number two…

2. The “Kinda Knows”. This is the group that includes all the people the child sees on a regular basis who aren’t in the Safe Adult group. That can be the dentist, doctor, soccer coach, mail carrier, neighbors, friend’s parents, scout leader, uncles, and aunts, and on and on. It’s a big group.

Without pointing fingers at any one type of “Kinda Knows”, it is people from this group, unfortunately, who often end up abusing children that they come in contact with. Children trust this group of people – the people whose faces are part of their everyday lives – and it’s easy for someone unscrupulous to take advantage of that trust.

Right about now you might be thinking, “My kid’s [pick one] neighbor/dentist/baseball coach is a wonderful person! They would never hurt my child!” Well, I do hope that’s true and it often is. The trouble is, just as it’s hard for a child to know who is “bad” and “good” based on appearances, it’s also hard for adults to judge character based on the sometimes slight interaction we have with the “Kinda Knows” in our lives.

As many a brokenhearted adult who was sexually abused as a child can tell you, the person who committed the vile deeds was an upstanding member of the community whom no one would have suspected. In fact, as a child they may have even told another adult about the abuse only to have their story dismissed because it was too ridiculous to believe. But it was true.

Your child can have a wonderful relationship with the “Kinda Knows”. My kids chat with the people at the post office, at Starbucks, at the grocery store, down the block. But they only do it when I’m there. That’s the key. Absolutely nothing can replace adult supervision. Since I can’t know what anyone’s intentions really are regarding my kids, I would rather err on the side of caution.

Which leads us to group three…

3. The “Don’t Knows”. This group is the most like the traditional “strangers” we hear so much about. This is anyone that a child doesn’t know. They are treated just like group 2 (Kinda Knows): the child is never to go anywhere with a “Don’t Know”, or give them any information about themselves. They can only talk to a “Don’t Know” when one of their Safe Adults (group 1) is present.

Using this method, children can more easily navigate the ins and outs of their own personal safety – it’s more complicated than just “stranger danger”.