Stranger… Danger?

I was all set to come back today with a post about what I learned from my unplugged week, but something strange just happened to me that I want to talk about.

I was on my way home after walking my husband to work this morning, when I decided to sit in my favorite spot by the stream near my house. For the last few days, I’ve had the urge to just find a patch of grass and stare at the sky. A woman walking her dog passed me, and then her son, who was following, stopped and walked up to me.  He asked my name; I told him; he told me his name, and we shook hands.

His mother who had stopped a few yards away sharply called him over. She leaned down to look him in the eye and started scolding him. I didn’t catch much of what she said because of the rush of the water, but she was visibly angry and I did overhear her last few loud words, “She’s a STRANGER!” They walked away, and I sat there, a little stunned. First, that she would chide him within a few feet of me, not caring if I overheard her saying things about me, but mostly, I was stunned that the idea of “stranger danger” has permeated so far into our parenting culture that something like an innocuous greeting in view of a parent warranted that kind of a response.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “stranger danger” recently, especially since I read the book, Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. I’m not a parent yet, but I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of life I want to give my kids, and it is not one of fear and mistrust. Obviously, I will teach them to be careful, to be judicious, but I also want to teach them that the world is mostly good—that  people are mostly good. I know that no matter how hard I try, I will never be there for every moment of their lives. Instead of frantically trying to keep tabs on them at all times, I would rather spend my time teaching them how to make their own good choices.

My worst nightmare isn’t my child getting kidnapped; it is if they were kidnapped because they didn’t know that they could ask another “stranger” for help. Lenore Skenazy talks about this very thing: “Tell your kids they can talk to strangers. They can ask for help from strangers. What they should never do is go off with strangers… To fine-tune the message, you can tell your kids never to go off with anyone you haven’t preapproved beforehand. Simple as that.”

This makes so much more sense to me than “never talk to strangers, under any circumstances!” Teaching our children to be friendly and sociable, while still being smart, prepares them much more for the real world. “Stranger danger” that calls for running and screaming with the least provocation is not only drastic, but potentially harmful, turning a normal person into a “suspicious stranger” that is now someone to be wary of.

Our kids should understand that people are good; that people want to help them; that talking to people, even if they don’t know them, is healthy and normal. They should also be taught to recognize suspicious situations, and have an effective, empowering approach to get away from those situations. We should not be teaching them through fear and ignorance, but through knowledge and empowerment.

And it starts with us. I know it is easier said than done, but the fear-mongering didn’t originate from our children; we created it, and we have to address it.  Learn the statistics, distrust the media (whose sole job is to scare you!), and rather than passing on fear, you can pass on the tools they really need.

Respectful comments only, please; let me know your thoughts and experiences on the subject.

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7 thoughts on “Stranger… Danger?

  1. I just read an article on this topic, and had a conversation with my three year old soon after. We talked about never going anywhere with someone without talking to us first, never keeping secrets from Mommy or Papa, and never “helping” an adult if they ask you to come and help them with something. (“Will you come help me find my puppy?”). Anyway- I think that scolding for talking politely to a stranger (with Mom in plain sight) is a bit much. I’m not sure how you simultaneously teach that and how to be respectful and communicative when meeting new people. I guess she would say that he should only talk to someone when she introduces them? Who knows.

    Also- who knows what her background was and what motivates her to respond in that way. We’ve all got a story, right? Hopefully that story does not keep us living in fear, but perhaps that mom has a story that has trained her to teach this sort of approach. I guess I’m saying it is good to reflect on, and good to withhold judgement on that mom too.

    I agree with the previous commenter- you will be a great parent. Thoughtful and balanced!

    • I think it’s great to have those discussions. A short “Don’t talk to strangers” when the moment comes may leave the child confused, but a “let’s talk about what to do if a stranger approaches you” opens a discussion where the child can ask questions and learn in an informative environment, rather than a negatively emotional one.

      I completely agree with suspending judgement as well, and I hope I didn’t come across as judgmental. I know all too well how previous experiences can impact how we act (or overreact) in current ones. I guess what bothers me is when we let fear of the unknown obscure the actual facts. The fact is that most abductions are committed by someone the child knows; since this is so difficult to counteract (how do you tell your child not to trust Uncle Tom?), we shift the focus to what we feel we can control (don’t talk to any stranger ever). Not only does this not decrease abductions by people they know, it also decreases any sense of independence or the possibility of new friendships.

      We have, for some reason, adopted the idea that if something happens that we could possibly have prevented if we were omniscient and all-powerful, it is automatically our fault for not preventing it. We seem to have discounted accidents and the effects of other people’s actions (including our children’s). It is impossible to predict another person’s choices.

      We teach our children the rules of driving to prepare them for the road, even though there is no way to be sure someone else won’t hit them. We don’t tell them, “Well, only drive on back roads, and hope you don’t meet anyone along the way.” We teach them to wear seatbelts, obey the laws themselves, and to recognize bad and good driving. The same should apply for “stranger danger;” recognize bad and good interactions with adults, and have a plan if something is amiss.

      Sorry for the novel. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  2. Jennie, it’s like you read my mind!
    Last week I read the Berenstein Bear book “Stranger Danger,” and it really bothered me. Sister Bear happily says hello to everyone she sees (much like that kid that introduced himself to you) and her parents sit her down and tell her to never ever talk to strangers. After that, she’s afraid of everyone!
    After reading that, I had a long talk (read: vent) with Ryan. I said basically what you just did. I want to teach my kids to use common sense, that it’s okay to talk to strangers, but that’s pretty much it. No going somewhere with them, no accepting anything from them, etc. How confused kids must be when their mom says “don’t talk to strangers” and then makes small talk to the person in line behind them at the store.
    Have you read the blog for Free-Range Kids? I had no idea there was a book. I’ll have to read it, since I agree with most everything that is said on the blog.
    (also, I texted you Friday because I was downtown all day and wanted to see you!)

    • I think it’s good to have those discussions before the time comes. That way, you are both on the same page when your child has questions.

      I did read through the blog before I linked it. The only problem I have recommending both the blog and the book is her tone. She occasionally comes off as insensitive, sometimes downright mean. Obviously, she has the facts on her side, but I don’t think she needs to be quite so dismissive of others’ worst fears.

      And I didn’t get your text because I was unplugged last week and had a strict “no texting” rule. Sorry! But do call or text again if you are in the area!

  3. Ryan is very social with other adults and so many ladies love when he comes up and talks to them. I find it very sad that so few people allow themselves to even be friendly towards anyone because they are a “stranger.” We have many discussions about what is and isn’t okay.

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