Public Safety – Stranger Danger

When parents give their children a general warning such as “never talk to strangers” they are running a risk. At some point in time, their children may need a stranger’s help and they have to be taught the difference. A good example of this predicament is the case of an 11-year-old boy who was lost in the woods. When volunteer-strangers searching for him came close to finding where he was, he was frightened and deliberately hid from them. This story ended on a happy note and the child was eventually found, but one can see the need for clarifying and understanding the message of “stranger-danger.”

Nothing replaces close supervision of children, especially for pre-schoolers who are unable to identify threatening situations. When children start to develop social skills and judgment, they can be taught how to respond to different real-life circumstances. One of the most valuable lessons to give children would be to practice “what if” scenarios. Help children identify the appropriate and safe responses when they are at risk, such as getting lost in a mall versus getting lost in the woods, being approached in the park or being offered a gift. Also, remind children that adults would not ask a child for help without the approval of a parent. Role-playing scenarios that have children act out the proper reactions (including loud vocal statements such as “You are not my father! Let me go!”), can give them confidence to react in real-life situations.

These imaginary scenarios are an opportunity for children to learn to identify people that are safe to approach (e.g. a uniformed officer, a store clerk or a mother with children). They also present an occasion for parents and children to look at other strategies such as having a password. Finally, a child should know his/her name, address and phone number in case of separation. This information should not be made obvious on lunch boxes or knapsacks. If a stranger speaks to a child using his name, the child may mistakenly assume that he/she is a friend.

Although children should be wary of strangers, abductions are usually carried out by individuals known to the child, not strangers. In 2007, there were 60,582 missing children in Canada and less than one per cent of these children were abducted by strangers. This implies that telling children not to talk to strangers is simply insufficient advice. Moreover, children are exposed to mixed messages. On the one hand they are told not to talk to strangers but then they are encouraged to say hello to a stranger at the supermarket line-up. Bottom line is that children must learn to trust their instincts and when in doubt, they should seek out an adult that they trust.

(updated May 21, 2009)