Every parent’s number one responsibility is to keep their child safe. Since pictures of missing children began to first appear on milk containers in the 1980’s, parents .have responded by teaching their children about “stranger danger.” Many children are instructed from a very early age not to talk to strangers. Yet the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), whose photos of lost children appear on milk containers, believes that this message is both insufficient and counterproductive in keeping children safe. NCMEC and other child safety professionals do not support the message of “stranger danger” for the following reasons:
1. The vast majority of incidents involve children harmed or taken by someone they know well – a parent, step-parent, other relative, babysitter, or family friend. According to statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Justice, only about 100 cases a year nationally follow the injurious “stereotypical” abduction that the stranger danger message is meant to prevent. Telling children not to interact with strangers does not eliminate the cause of most of the harm.
2. Studies show that young children do not understand what a stranger is. When asked, they will identify a stranger as someone who is “mean” or “ugly.” A nice, attractive person is not seen as a stranger in their eyes.
3. Adults always talk to strangers – a salesperson, a friendly person on the bus, or a new neighbor. This makes “stranger danger” even more confusing for children.
4. Being afraid of all strangers creates unnecessary fear, and can contribute to nightmares, anxiety and unhappiness in children.
5. Nancy A. McBride, NCMEC National Safety Director, says that “When we tell children to ‘never talk to strangers,’ we have effectively eliminated a key source of help for them.” If a child really is in danger, they need to know how to engage strangers to assist them, be a police officer or other uniformed person, a shopkeeper or neighbor.
What are other messages that parents can give their children that will keep them even safer? Here are a few ideas:
1. Some parents tell their children not to go anywhere with someone they don’t know. This more accurately addresses safety concerns, and is easier to follow than the “no talking” rule.
2. Children can be empowered with safety skills so that they will learn what to do in a dangerous situation. They can be taught to approach a person in a uniform, such as a police officer or firefighter, when they feel that someone is bothering them. They can also speak to store clerks, other parents, or other people who are available to help them.
3. Children’s Eye Media, a British educational organization, has a campaign, “Safer Strangers, Safer Buildings.” Children are encouraged to think about who they would approach if they were lost and in trouble, as well as what buildings to enter, such as a store or library, where they might get help.
The key is to have a dialogue with your child that builds their sense of competence and awareness. Children at different ages will learn to cope with different scenarios. For example, a young child can be taught to stay where there are if they are lost in a store, and wait for their parent to find them. An elementary school child can be encouraged to know their parents cell phone number, and know how to get help in placing a call. A middle or high school child who takes a bus or walks home from school can learn to get help from a shopkeeper or neighbor if they think someone is following them.
By coming up with age-appropriate messages that are tailor-made to the specific child and the situations they may face, parents can provide their children with tools that can keep them safe.
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, NISMART-2, October 2002. National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview