Conventional parenting wisdom tells us to drive the fear of talking to strangers into our kids. Is this at all harmful though? Is there any adverse impact to a child's social development by doing this? How can you balance safety against fear?
This answer isn't really about social development, but does offer other reasons for choosing a different method to talk about this with your kids. Apparently, "don't talk to strangers" can be harmful, though not necessarily in the way you are asking.
According to my Dad (police officer), John Walsh - of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (Much bigger credibility than my dad right?) and Leonore Skenazy (writer of Free Range Kids), there are three problems with "don't talk to strangers":
- It is easy for a "stranger" to trick a child into believing the stranger is NOT a stranger. Time and time again kids go off with these strangers anyway. They really don't seem to "get it" on the whole.
- When kids are separated in busy places from parents or guardians and actually need help, they have to rely on strangers to get the help they need. When told never to talk to strangers, they don't know how to successfully obtain appropriate help. There may be even more serious times when your child will require the help of a stranger to stay safe or get out of trouble. Car accident and you've been badly hurt and your child needs to be cared for by the person that pulls over and calls 911 while uniformed officers and paramedics arrive, after a natural disaster, or even just at the park when he falls from the swings and a stranger gets there just a bit quicker than you. . .
- Most children that are abducted or molested, are made victims by people they actually do know, so the rule "don't talk to strangers Does Not Help These Other Kids too."
Instead, Teach your kids about "tricky people." Kids should know that adults will never need their help so urgently that mom, dad or another trusted and well known adult can't be retrieved as part of the helping. Teach them never to GO anywhere with a stranger. Ever - even just to the other side of a tree where you cannot see.
Teach your kids how to get attention. If a stranger is trying to convince a child to go somewhere with them, or keep a secret from mom and dad the child should know how to say Very Loudly, "I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO KEEP SECRETS FROM MY PARENTS OR GO ANYWHERE WITH STRANGERS EVER!" and if that doesn't attract enough attention to start screaming, "NO, Help He is NOT MY DAD! HELP! NO!"
Teach your kids the kinds of "tricks" tricky people will use. An adult does not need your help to find his dog so urgently that you can't go home and also enlist the help of mom. An adult approaching you is more likely to be a "tricky" one than an adult the child approaches. . .
Teach your kids what to do if they become separated from you in crowded locations - find a mother that has OTHER children with her and ask that person for help finding mom or dad. Teach the child that mother's job is to help flag down an official to make announcements and otherwise stay put with with the child, not to GO somewhere.
Teach your kids to discuss their private parts using proper terminology. If your child then comes to you referring to her labia and vagina (terms which almost no one will ever use with a child) as her muffin, cupcake, etc. You can ask who taught her that name (I'm sure you understand how to adjust this for little boys). This helps keep you alert if someone is hurting your child.
Teach your kids to trust themselves. Don't force them to give hugs - even to family members. If uncle so and so does something that they don't like, they should know that NO MATTER WHAT - even if Uncle So and so says to keep it a secret, you need to know.
For More detailed information about why "Stranger Danger" doesn't work and what to do instead, check out this article from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In our family, the rule is "don't talk to strangers unless a grown-up is with you", at least when a child is small.
Now that my son is 8, has had some martial arts training, as well as basic general tactical instruction, the rule is much more relaxed -- "Don't put yourself in a situation where a stranger has the ability to compromise your safety."
He'll happily chat up someone new if a trusted adult is near at hand, or if he's in a public place with the ability to easily remove himself from the situation should something go wrong. He'd never get in a stranger's car, let a stranger get close enough to grab him, or wander off. I can trust him to be in a different part of the library than I, or to play with someone new at the park, or get help from a store employee, on his own.
While understanding how to protect himself was an important part of getting here, the most important lesson was that good strangers and bad strangers look pretty much the same, and no one -- not even Mom or Sensei -- can tell the two apart with perfect accuracy.
The message changes over the years. We started with the "Don't talk to strangers" when that was all my daughter could understand. The message we give her at 11 is more nuanced and includes the multiple forms of risk:
- most (82%) molesters are friends of the family or family itself.
- on the internet, your 11 yo pen pan could be a 45yo man.
- manipulation is as great a risk as violence.
- violent attacks can be fast and unexpected. She is very tall and has a lot of martial arts training, but I reckon a man could overpower her with a single punch.
- risk management is more useful than a kick in the goolies.
We balancing this message with the fact that such attacks are rare, especially if the child is vigilant.
I do not believe that this has affected her social skills adversely.
I am going to make a sweeping generalization now, but I can't help it. I think that we all have to tell our children various lies and half truths along their path of development. We have to do this because the world is too complex to understand all at once, and so, in order to teach a child successfully, you have simplify it down to digestible chunks. Sometimes, the only way to simplify is by ignore certain things for the time being, and that may mean we have to lie or tell half truths. What this also means, is that we have the responsibility to reveal the things we covered up later on in life, when the child's mind is more complex, has more context and is ready to take in more information.
Telling kids "don't talk to strangers" is appropriate for a certain age, but should probably be expanded upon at a later point.
A child has to be of a certain age to determine what's a "Qualified Stranger", that you can TALK to, even though, never to accompany. Till then, "don't talk to strangers" works well I think. we all grew up on that rule, and still find ourselves talking to strangers in bars or parties as adults...
Don't talk to strangers is not harmful in my opinion, because children get plenty of interactions with adults they know, and that interaction should adequately cover their development needs.
My parents were quite clear to me about this idea, at least from the age of around four if I remember correctly. Their definition:
A stranger is anyone who I don't know, and especially one that is offering me anything.
In special situations (being lost in the mall, or similar) I was allowed to address strangers (especially anyone wearing a uniform), but generally not the other way round.
You can construct a defition that is as limited or as allowing as you see fit. But I do recommend coming up with a simple and clear definition, and reminding often. As I said above, it can't really harm to be careful, and I think that most "nondangerous" adults will understand when a child says I'm not allowed to talk to you, go away.