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Why teaching kids about ‘stranger danger’ may backfire

Parents should teach their children how to handle strangers both in the outside world and online, experts say.
Parents should teach their children how to handle strangers both in the outside world and online, experts say. djedzura/Getty Images

“Stranger danger” has been a popular lesson parents have ingrained in their children for decades.

In this lesson, children are taught to never approach people they don’t know, speak to people they don’t know, or accept any gifts from strangers in an effort to keep their children safe from outside predators with sinister intentions.

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A 2017 U.S. survey done by home security firm A Secure Life on the biggest fears of parents revealed that 25 per cent of parents still fear someone will hurt or attack their child, while 14 per cent fear their kids will be kidnapped or abducted.

“We’re constantly told through the media how everything is scary and people are horrible,” parenting expert Julie Freedman-Smith of Parenting Power says. “But if a bad thing happens and the media chooses to report on it, it’s because something like that doesn’t happen very often. Yet, because we see the news at every quarter hour, we’re thinking these things are happening a lot more often than they are.”

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In fact, of the 41,342 reports of missing children in Canada in 2014, only 29 were related to a stranger abduction while 122 were for a parental abduction, the RCMP reports.

So could this black-and-white approach to children’s safety be outdated, and even more harmful than not? Some parenting experts argue that it is.

“Whenever we’re teaching our kids, we want to help them to learn how to make the best decisions,” Freedman-Smith says. “But rather than blanketing all strangers as dangerous – which is, of course, not the case – it’s really about helping kids get clear on using their own ‘how their tummy feels about someone’ [feeling] and helping them figure out who is a safe stranger.”

By painting all strangers as dangerous, Freedman-Smith says, parents may be inadvertently teaching their children not to seek out help from someone should they need it and no one they know is around.

Instead, parents need to teach their children the difference between a trusted stranger they can go to in case they need help, and a potentially dangerous stranger they should avoid.

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This can be done by explaining to children that should they be in trouble, they should seek out someone in uniform. This could be a police officer or a store employee, for example.

Also remind children that an adult would never seek the help of a child. So should an adult come up to them and ask them to help them look for something like a lost pet, they need to run to an adult they know or someone they were told they could trust.

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As well, parents should think about running practice drills when out with their child. Point to people and ask them if they believe they should go to them in case of an emergency, and then explain to them why they were right or wrong in their choice. Apply this practice in different scenarios, like waking to school, going shopping and playing at the park, for example.

However, teaching kids about handling strangers shouldn’t be confined to the outside world. Think about talking to your kids about online safety as well when it comes to strangers, Freedman-Smith adds.

Parents should be monitoring their child’s online activity first of all, she says, and ground rules for computer time should be applied.

For example, parents of children who are of an appropriate age to have computer time should tell their kids they are not allowed to talk to strangers over the internet. Any decisions involving an arranged meeting should be a family decision, and nothing should be kept a secret. Also discuss with them the importance of not sharing personal videos or photos online.