Empathic Parenting Counseling and Coaching

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The Problem With “Stranger Danger”

Lately my son has been making friends wherever we go. The grocery store, the park, the library. It doesn’t matter where we are, he’s going to find a new adult to befriend. He’s so friendly, in fact, that he has started inviting people over. He tells them which street we live on, describes our house, and provides instructions for getting through our gate.

Luckily so far this has been exclusive to our favorite librarian and some nice grandmas in the checkout line, but it’s still concerning. I’ve never known how to warn him against unsafe adults while avoiding using blanket statements or scare tactics. I don’t want to concern my worry prone child or dampen his charm. I’ve basically avoided saying anything at all on the topic, but I know this isn’t the solution either. I’ve been toying with what to say about unsafe adults, and I’ve been coming up blank. 

Then recently a friend mentioned struggling with the same dilemma when her young son chats up adults at the playground. Her son is very confident and outgoing, and he talks to adults as a means to make new friends with their children. She told me that when she tried to talk to her son about being cautious with unknown adults, he began calling strangers “mean.” She wasn’t sure how to support his confidence while also keeping him safe.

Clearly I didn’t have an answer for her since I have been struggling with the same issue. I figured there was good advice out there, and I just needed to find it.

“Tricky Person”

We all remember learning the term “stranger danger” when we were kids. It was used to scare us off from anyone we didn’t know so we wouldn’t be abducted. There are a couple problems with this approach:

1. All it takes is a predator introducing him/herself to our child to no longer be a stranger. Plus more often than not, a child is victimized by someone the family already knows. Sometimes the danger isn’t a stranger.

2. In a crisis, a stranger could potentially be the one to help our children. If they are being lured away by a predator, a passerby might actually be a hero. Our children need to know who to turn to for help if they are ever alone in a scary situation. Strangers aren’t always dangerous.

Recently I learned about the term “Tricky Person.” In fact, I stumbled across this article where a mama explains how the “tricky person” concept saved her kids. That article in turn led me to the originator of the term “tricky person,” safety expert Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After. Safely Ever After is the place to get tips, ideas, and wisdom about keeping your kids safe.

Pattie explains that a tricky person is an adult who behaves in ways that make our kids uncomfortable or break a safety rule (you can find her safety rules for kids at the bottom of this post).

​Rather than making a blanket statement about strangers, we can teach our children which people are tricky and what to do when they encounter someone who makes them uncomfortable.

A Conversation with Pattie Fitzgerald

I was so grateful for this information, but I felt like I still had more questions. I reached out to Pattie to ask her how to talk to children about safety, and I’m glad I did. Through our conversation I gained so much clarity around this issue and also identified what not to do.

Pattie recommends keeping all discussions about safety age appropriate. This means that for young children, the most important strategies are teaching bodily consent and making sure our kids always check with a parent before going anywhere with another person. She encourages parents to keep the tone light and use a sense of humor. In this way children receive the vital information they need but aren’t made to feel fearful. As Pattie points out, young children aren’t responsible for their own safety yet and are usually closely supervised. Therefore, there is no need for complex explanations about scenarios they won’t encounter for years.

Instead, she suggests simple role plays, which young children love. For example, if I want to explain the importance of checking with an adult before accepting any kind of invitation, I can play my son and show him what to do, “Hey Mama, this kid wants me to go with him to his car to look at his dog. Can I go?” Then he can practice responding so he remembers why this rule exists. 

We can also focus on teachable moments throughout the day. The next time my son invites a random person to our house, I can broach the subject with him in the car on the way home and make sure that he knows to always check first before inviting anyone into our house or car.

As our children grow, we can build on these discussions to add strategies and rules for when children aren’t supervised. For older children, it’s important that they know what to do when someone makes them feel uncomfortable, such as cross the street, enter a closeby business, or ask a mom with kids for help. However, she emphasizes that it’s best to take these conversations one step at a time as children grow to avoid needlessly concerning a small child with information they can’t yet process. 

I’m grateful to Pattie for sharing her wisdom, and I highly recommend her website. 

​Here are Pattie Fitzgerald’s safety rules for kids from her website:

 Used with permission and originally found at ​http://safelyeverafter.com/tenrules.html. 

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0 thoughts on “The Problem With “Stranger Danger”

  1. It is so important to teach our children these concepts. It is very true that we need to modify what we teach them according to their age. Earlier this year, a group came to my son’s elementary school and taught them about this too. They had a packet for the parents to use to follow up with the kids at home.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this article. It is awesome. I wrote, My Body’s Mine, A Book on Sexual Abuse Prevention for 3 to 8 year olds. This is such an important subject, but a difficult conversation to have if you don’t have the tools. My goal is to educate parents and empower children. They are our greatest treasure! We must do all we can to protect them, not alarm but arm them with the necessary skills for safety. Again, thanks for sharing such important information.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kayla! You’re doing important work. Sexual abuse is so difficult for parents to talk about or even acknowledge as a possibility. It’s crucial that it be addressed in age appropriate ways just as you are empowering parents to do.

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