How to Teach ‘Stranger Danger’ Without Turning a Kid Into a Recluse
Parents can be paranoid. Whether it stems from reports of child abuse and sexual predators, to scary diseases infiltrating even the cleanest homes, to bullying and kids’ mental health, parents are hovering more over their kids than ever before. Across the world, trends show parents are less likely to allow their children to go out alone, largely because of the fear of kidnappers or predators. And while protecting kids is a worthwhile and important goal, teaching children about ‘stranger danger’ is a tough balance because it threatens to destroy some of the innocence that makes childhood so enjoyable.
The problem is that parental anxiety rubs off on kids. And no matter how much we protect children, there will always be many moments in the day when a parent is not by their sides and can’t protect them. So actually, the best way to protect kids from unsafe people and situations is to arm them with the independence and self-confidence to recognize discomfort, assert themselves, and report experiences back to a responsible and trusted adult. Here’s how.
Kids can only stand up to a potential predator, or gather the courage to fight back, if they have the self-confidence to trust their instincts about a situation. And trusting one’s instincts comes from having your feelings heard and validated by the adults you know and trust. This means that when a kid comes to you complaining that they don’t like a particular relative pinching their cheeks, or the way a teacher may grab their arm to get them to sit down, you don’t brush off these concerns and tell kids to get over it. Rather, you listen attentively and teach the child to verbalize these concerns (by telling the person politely: “Please stop doing that, I don’t like it,” for example). In these safe situations, by validating a child’s concerns about their discomfort, and teaching them to verbally assert their preferences, you are laying the foundations of their self-confidence to trust their instincts, and voice their discomfort if they ever find themselves in a more dangerous situation.
Be matter-of-fact, not anxious
It’s a fact: Most people in the world are good, but there are some — very few — bad apples. This fact doesn’t need to be sugar-coated for kids, but it also doesn’t need to define their lives. It should not be the primary narrative around which they plan everything else. Kids can be told — calmly, reasonably — that if they ever encounter a person who makes them feel uncomfortable, they should say as much, confidently, and then go seek out the nearest trusted adult. If the trusted adult is the one making them uncomfortable, they should tell a parent the next time they’re home. The more matter-of-fact these conversations can be, the less anxiety-producing they are. And these conversations can easily be understood by a three-year old, so they should happen at any age where children start experiencing the world without their parents present (usually preschool age).
You don’t need to be talking about evil, lurking monsters all day long. Once in a while, if an opportunity presents itself, mention what your child can do if they feel uncomfortalbe in that context. But you don’t need to have conversations about evil people every time your child goes to the playground, or a friend’s house, or you will be shaping their view of those fun events in an unnecessarily negative way. Pick your moments, and the rest of the time, let them enjoy themselves.
Teach Making a Scene
Throwing tantrums to get your way is not good, but making a scene in public if someone tries to hurt you is a necessary survival skill. Explain the difference.