Talking To Your Child About Strangers

"Don't talk to strangers."

"Speak when someone asks you a question."

"Don't take anything from strangers."

"Be polite."

Do these seem to be contradictory statements? They are. Yet as parents, we admonish our children with words similar to these on a regular basis. With the number of child abduction cases growing it is time to stop and rethink some of the things we say to our children that may make them easy prey to kidnapping.

Obviously, we've got to talk to our children about the potential danger from strangers. But it's misleading to think that the issue is that simple. According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services' Missing Children Register, of the children missing in New York State in 1992 who were known to be abducted, only 2% were abducted by "strangers." The other 98% were abducted by family members or acquaintances. It is not enough, therefore, that we only talk about "strangers" to our children. The greater danger our children face is with a person they feel comfortable with. It could be the neighborhood "pretzel man," a divorced parent, an uncle / aunt or other relative. It could be your next door neighbor.

The issue is confusing. Children see adults talking to these "strangers" every day. So one the things we must address are the mixed messages we send. We must make it clear that giving a stranger the time of day or chatting with the pretzel man is appropriate behavior for adults but not for children. We must also let go of antiquated etiquette. Admonishing our children to "Be polite," and "Speak if you're spoken to" puts a child in a "no win" situation. Accepting a stranger's gift means they're "being polite" but breaking the rule about accepting things from strangers. Refusing a gift means they are being "rude".

With Halloween coming up, the confusion is further intensified. Why is it "safe", a child may ask, to go door to door to neighbors I hardly know and accept candy when I'm told the rest of the year to NEVER take candy from or speak to strangers?

The answers to these questions may seem clear to adults but they are bewildering to children. Their life experience doesn't afford them the wisdom to differentiate between these subtleties.

So what's a conscientious parent to do? How do we come up with an effective way to keep our children safe but prevent them from becoming either paranoid and/or completely anti-social? The following will help:

* Begin early. When my daughter was 18 months old, a man offered her a dollar. My husband politely refused, saying "No thank you, she doesn't accept things from strangers." Apply this attitude to people who try to engage your child in conversation. Encourage her to take a cue from you before speaking. If you're concerned about offending the other person, explain that you're teaching your child not to talk to strangers. Very often the stranger will not be insulted. Most likely, they will agree with the lesson. In any situation, ALWAYS take the opportunity to talk with your child about the incident. Being calm and matter of fact will keep your child from feeling unduly afraid without diminishing your point.

* When your child is young, don't differentiate between "strangers," "acquaintances", and "neighbors". Children lack the cognitive skills to differentiate. By labeling everyone a "stranger", even if you speak with them frequently, the general statements "Never go with strangers" and "Never take things from strangers" become less confusing.

* Spell out exactly who they CAN go with: "You can go with Uncle Jim, Aunt Jill and Grandpa." Limit the choices to only four or five people.

* Rehearse situations. Remind your child of the rules: Don't go with anyone, even if you know them a little bit. Enact scenes where danger might exist. For example, tell your child to pretend it's time for them to be picked up from school. You be the pretzel man on the corner who arrives and says "Mommy is downstairs waiting for us, let's go." Coach your child's reaction. While most schools won't release a child to an unauthorized person, mistakes happen. Rehearse a scenario where someone asks your child to help them find a lost animal. Be specific in rehearsal, give numerous examples, and though it may seem repetitive, enact them often. A little boredom is worth it to keep your child safe.

* Prepare your child for potentially confusing situations -- Halloween for example. Explain that Halloween is a tradition that was begun before there were any of the dangers there are today. We can keep the tradition as long as we're careful. Explain what you mean by being careful and:

examine all the candy before they eat any,

know exactly where they are going,

go with your children if they are young,

if they are older, insist they go in a group.

* Finally, forget about "Be polite", "Say hello", and similar phrases. Children will learn "true" politeness by example. Remember that rudeness is preferable to abduction. You can always explain to the other adult what is going on but you may never be able to recover an abducted child.