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"Stranger Danger...?" Throw that Outdated Term in the Trash!

Ah, a new school year. For kids, this means seeing friends they haven’t seen all summer, finding activities to get involved with, and learning so much new, and exciting information. As the chapter for summer closes, a new adventure awaits them behind those big doors.

For parents, the beginning of school can mean something entirely different. As their kids begin to navigate the world without them, safety is a common concern.

“Stranger danger” is a term that is thrown around to warn children about interacting with adults they do not know. This term makes many of us visualize a mysterious man driving around in a white van, stopping to offer treats to entice a child into their car.

While this sort of thing does happen, it is very rare and more often seen in a crime thriller movie.

According to Darkness to Light, only 10% of children are harmed by somebody who is a stranger. This means that the majority of harm caused to children is by people we know and trust.

Many parents struggle to find an appropriate way to teach safety to children, as they do not want to overwhelm them or traumatize them. As a result, they just teach their children to fear all strangers and avoid them. Unfortunately, this black and white idea may cause more harm than good.

So, how can you teach safety to children in a practical, and educational way?

Redefine the Term

When we consistently use “stranger danger” as a way to warn children about dangerous adults, we are eliminating 90% of the potential perpetrators who have a much higher chance of harming them. Rather than leaning on this very outdated term and idea, we must rework how we teach about dangerous adults.

Rather than focusing on who a child should be weary of, we should focus on the actions that are dangerous.

We can do this by emphasizing three important ideas…

1. Consent

2. Trusting your gut

3. Boundaries

When we focus more on these ideas, it will give children a universal idea of how they can protect themselves and which red flags to look out for.

Remember, nobody should be ruled out for having the ability to harm your child.

Teaching About Safety

When we teach kids about staying safe from adults who may harm them, teaching them how to take control of their own body is essential. Teaching consent from a young age is important as children are often made to feel like they do not have the right to control what happens to them.

We can teach consent by reminding children they do not need to do or allow anything that makes them uncomfortable. Reinforcement of this idea in the form of respect is almost more important.

For example, if your child does not want a hug or kiss from Uncle Ed, do not invalidate their boundaries by saying something like, “Oh, come on! Quit being shy and give him a kiss!” This will teach the child that they are not in control of their own body, and that adults are instead. This mentality creates a prime victim for somebody to groom and potentially harm.

When they have that feeling in their gut that tells them to avoid a situation, or to set a boundary, that should be encouraged, rather than brushed aside.

We want kids to understand what that uneasy feeling in their gut is and that it is there for a reason. Kids should be given the right to set boundaries based off those feelings.

Virtus highlights setting boundaries as one of the most essential ways to develop self-respect and an awareness for appropriate behavior. This is a much more effective way to teach safety than teaching kids to fear all strangers.

The Problem with Stranger Danger

Although there are situations where a stranger does try to harm a child, this scenario is much less likely to happen than someone you trust taking advantage. This is why highlighting strangers as the only people capable of harming your child can be dangerous. If all the attention is focused on strangers being “bad,” then a child will ignore that gut feeling they may be getting from someone they are supposed to trust.

Not only is this idea harmful for a child’s safety, but it is not healthy for a child to grow up fearing all strangers. If you think about it, everyone is a stranger until you get to know them. The teacher on the first day of school, the friendly neighborhood mail person, and the waiter or waitress at a restaurant are all strangers. Yet, children are expected to interact with these people.

This idea can become confusing for children, because interacting with strangers is an essential part of life. Creating an unhealthy fear of strangers in children will impact their ability to talk to strangers even as they become adults.

Virtus points out that it is important for children to have a healthy suspicion, rather than being afraid of everyone.

Here are 2 alternative ways to teach important safety ideas…

1. Identify which behaviors are inappropriate.

· Ex: touching, spending time alone and encouraging the child not to tell, getting into a car with an adult they don’t know.

2. Teach about the “gut” feeling and its significance

· Can also be called an “ut-oh” feeling

· Warning you of potential danger which you should escape and talk to a parent about.

· Not there for no reason

While teaching safety to a child can be a difficult topic to approach, how you teach them will make a huge impact. It is completely possible to teach children about safety without leaning on outdated ideas.

Remember, the values we teach them at a young age are the values they will carry for the rest of their lives!

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1 Comment

Sally Kowalski
Sally Kowalski
Sep 12, 2019

Very good information and great ideas of what to teach them instead.

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