STOP teaching “Stranger Danger”

“Help! My child strikes up conversations with every adult she sees. How can I teach her about stranger danger?”

Stranger danger. It’s short, simple, and even rhymes! But is it really the most effective abduction prevention lesson for our children? Children do not understand the concept of a stranger. Many believe that strangers are mean, ugly people — so the nice man asking for help to find his lost puppy? Not a stranger. What about helpful people, like a store clerk or another mom with children? It may be hard for children to understand the difference between strangers who could hurt them and strangers who may help them.

There are three issues with teaching the concept of stranger danger.

  1. Emphasizing stranger danger overlooks a more pressing problem. Child abduction by strangers is rare. 90% percent of the harm done to children is by people they already know.

    “Telling kids not to talk to strangers fails to protect children at the most basic level,” writes early childhood expert Heather Shumaker in The Daily Beast. “Children are most often harmed by friends and family. This unsettling statistic is one we wish would go away. It’s far more convenient to blame the faceless stranger than to confront domestic violence, incest, and other abuse.”

  2. Stranger danger is just confusing for kids. Who’s a stranger? The new first-grade teacher? The nurse they just met? Should they fear everyone? Doing so has the potential to cause introverted-ness and social anxiety.

  3. Finally, when you strip kids from interactions with new people, it prevents them from developing the critical, real-world skill of sensing potentially dangerous situations. And that’s something that takes practice.

In life, it is good to talk to strangers. People who talk to strangers—in coffee shops, in lines at the post office—are luckier and feel more connected to those around them.

Helpful tips on how to keep your children safe without using the phrase stranger danger:

Let them trust their “gut” feeling.

Children naturally have good intuition. The Ruby’s Studio episode “The Safety Show” teaches young kids to recognize and trust their instincts when something doesn’t feel safe. Remind your children that if they ever get an “uh oh” feeling, they should tell a parent, teacher or other trusted adult.

Talk About “Tricky People”

There’s a movement to rebrand “strangers” as “tricky people.” Introduced by Safely Ever After, an educational company dedicated to preventing of childhood sexual abuse, the idea is that it’s not how well a child knows a person, it’s what they say or do that makes them “tricky.” A tricky person might tell a kid to keep a secret, or ask for help, or do something else that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Have Kids Practice Talking to Strangers in Your Presence

It not only helps them develop good social skills, but it gives them confidence in figuring out who they can trust. At a restaurant, have them order their own meal. At the dog park, see if they can find out what a dog’s name is. If your kid is more introverted, you can check in after the conversation, asking “How did that feel?”

Most strangers are totally fine! Very helpful, even. Kids will need to talk to strangers throughout their lives. The sooner they feel comfortable with that, the sooner they’ll be able to trust themselves to know if something isn’t quite right.