We have always told our kids to be wary of strangers. This mantra carries its own wisdom. However, things aren’t always that black and white. In some occasions, kids should talk to strangers, like police officers or firefighters. The key is to teach them to differentiate between when it’s appropriate to talk to strangers, which ones are “safe” strangers, and how to act when they feel uncomfortable with an adult or with a certain situation. “Don’t talk to strangers” applies only in certain cases.
Here are a few guidelines that you can discuss with your child about what to do when being approached by someone he or she doesn’t know:
It’s okay to talk to strangers while accompanied. When your child is out with you, it’s fine to let them say hello to strangers. Most people are genuinely happy to interact with a child, so there’s no need to be rude or extremely suspicious of everyone you or your child encounters. However, let your child know that if a stranger approaches him or her while being alone, it’s not okay.
Beware the lures of strangers. Some of the most common ways that predators lure children away from safety is by asking to help them with a task, like finding a lost puppy or child, or by offering them a treat if they do what the stranger says. Teach your child that when this happens, he or she should say “No” and leave immediately to find a trusted adult.
No secrets. Your child must be aware that secrets with strangers are a no-no. Teach your child that it’s inappropriate if anyone—stranger, friend, or family member—asks him or her to keep secrets or tries to make your child do things that feel uncomfortable. If your child experiences this, he or she should tell you or your parenting partner right away.
Appearances don’t matter. Children might think that dangerous strangers look like villainous characters from a cartoon. But most of them look like regular folks, polished and kind. Teach your child to be wary of any stranger that approaches him or her while being alone, even if they look “nice.” Also, gender and age shouldn’t be a reason to trust or distrust someone. A dangerous stranger can be a woman, man, or teenager.
Safe strangers. These are people your child can ask for help when needed. Police officers and firefighters are very recognizable safe strangers. You can also show him or her how to get to the homes of friends in your neighborhood in case of an emergency.
Handling Dangerous Situations. Talk to your child about how to handle dangerous situations. Kids Safe Foundation, a non-profit that provides personal safety education, suggests teaching children: “No, Go, Yell, Tell.” Kids should say no, run away, yell loudly, and tell a trusted adult what happened. Teach your child that sometimes it’s okay to say no to an adult.
It’s better to teach your child from a place of knowledge than from a place of fear. If we say, “Don’t talk to strangers,” you are not teaching your child what to do. If you prepare him or her to handle these situations rather than instilling fear of all strangers, your child will be more confident later in life to handle all types of problems, including menacing events.