This came up because of a question about Halloween this morning and as the daughter of a US Sheriff's Deputy, the mother of a very friendly child, a teacher of other people's children and as a citizen in this world we live in I recognize the supreme importance of this issue for parents. The question needs to be on this site!

How does one teach their children how to be "safe" out in the world in regard to interacting with strangers, without making them fearful of everyone?

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    I totally forgot about a question that already existed when I wrote this and didn't find it when I searched, but I think I may have created a duplicate situation. Can we combine? parenting.stackexchange.com/q/1112/2876 – balanced mama Oct 31 '13 at 21:49
  • I find the contributions here can be amazing and intelligent +1 for all of you (I sound like I shouting a round of drinks lol) – user21179 Nov 1 '13 at 4:04
  • It doesn't matter to leave it here as a dup. People will still find it – user21179 Nov 1 '13 at 4:05

The unfortunate truth is most of the worst things that happen to children are perpetrated by people they know. We try to teach our kids to be wary of behaviors rather than people. For example:

  • Asking to keep something a secret from your parents. (We always use the word "surprise" for the good kind of secrets, because surprises are always only temporary secrets.)
  • Asking you to leave with them, when a parent didn't tell you to expect it.
  • Asking to touch or see your private areas.
  • Asking you to do something your parents told you not to do or that you otherwise know is wrong.

Aside from those areas, most interactions with strangers in our family focus on general courtesy. Not interrupting, not regaling them with your life story, not demanding treats or attention, that sort of thing.

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I wrote an article on this topic once upon a time, and although the answers given here are already, are wonderful answers, I thought I'd place the highlights of my research and article here as well.

I discovered the plan that made the most sense to me (and my Dad that has been in law enforcement) was to teach kids about "Tricky People" and how to identify their tricks. As others have already pointed out, asking for help from a stranger can mean life or death, lost or found, help or fear in other situations so it is important kids know what kind of strangers are likely to be helpful people or tricky people.

We read Roald Dahl's "Witches" recently and used it as a reason to review stranger safety rules because it ties in so nicely with the idea that you can't tell the good from the bad just by looking. Tricky people will seem very nice on the surface so you never want them to have a chance to remove their wigs and gloves in front of you - because that is when horrible things happen. You'll understand after you've read it if that last sentence didn't make any sense to you.

As Karl Bielefeldt already pointed out, there is a big difference between a stranger who approaches a child and one that the child approaches just for starters.

When kids need help, teach them it is good to go to the uniformed officer or safety guy first, or the person who obviously works at the location you are in (where applicable) to ask for help, but that moms with kids are also usually a pretty safe bet for help as well. Of course, the buddy system is also a wonderful plan to have in place. Kids simply shouldn't be alone whenever it is possible for them not to be - even teens can go in groups to the theater, bowling alley, school dance, party. . .

The Red Flags to Teach Your Kids

  • The adult asks for help and wants you (the child) to go somewhere without asking first.

  • The adult wants you (the child) to do anything without taking the time to talking to mom or dad about it first.

  • The adult tries to get you into a car, behind a tree or in another room or building without giving you (the child) a chance to talk to mom or dad first.

  • The adult tries to get you (the child) to keep a secret - any adult that is trying to convince you to do, say or make anything without telling mom or dad about it is probably not planning something nice (If it is a present for mom, you should be able to tell dad. If it is a present for Dad you should be able to tell Mom. If there is only one parent, you can choose another trusted adult
    such as Grandma to be adult number two).

  • If an adult makes you (the child) do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or feels wrong.

Things your child should learn NEVER to do:

  • Go anywhere with ANY adult when Mom and Dad don't know about it (even behind another car in the parking lot or to the bathroom at the park).

  • Offer their identity up to anyone (in person or online) no full or even "real" names, addresses (including personal email as it often contains clues to the name), phone numbers or any other such information.

  • Take candy, treats or gifts from ANY adult without Mom and Dad knowing about it.

  • Help any adult find anything without Mom and/or Dad present during the helping (this would usually involve going somewhere with the adult, but it is generally a good idea to specify it with the kids anyway).

What a Child Should Learn TO DO:

If your child is ever approached by a stranger, he or she should know to GET REALLY LOUD and scream whatever needs to be said (except the word help - people tend not to engage with the word help!?!) Something like, "YOU ARE NOT MY MOM and I AM NOT GOING ANYWHERE WITH YOU!!!" will get the attention of anyone around and the perpetrator is likely to back off and go away quickly if harm was actually intended. Fight! If a child is in a situation where he or she is pulled away or into a car etc. Whatever it is that will happen at the planned destination is not good so the child should bite, hit, scream, kick and be as difficult as he/she is able while also being incredibly LOUD!!!

A child should also know that if someone they KNOW is doing something that is a red flag item - like asking the child to keep secrets or asking them to do something that makes the child feel uncomfortable, that child should TELL and tell right away - whatever it is might make mom (or dad) feel sad, but she would be even SADDER if she found out and knew her child hadn't trusted her with the truth (even if it is tough truth) Moms and Dads are around because they love us - no matter what.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has tons of information about how to keep your kids safe as well as how to help keep all of our kids safer.

This is a link to a website where you can get information about the Safely Ever After program. The site has safety checklists, red flags, and links to other great resources about how to keep your kids safe.

I also really liked this article about combining the two ideas of "Tricky People" and "Stranger Danger" while educating your child about stranger safety.

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Here is a probably slightly different perspective: In a problematic situation, a "stranger" can be a kids best friend. Let's say they are lost or approached and/or followed by creepy person. In this there best shot is to approach the nearest "stranger", preferably a uniformed one and engage them: "Please ma'm, can you help me, I'm lost.". There is a big difference between a stranger that approaches them and a stranger that they choose and approach.

There was a case of a boy that almost died: he got lost in the woods and he actually hid from the search parties since they were "strangers" and he had learned that you must stay away from strangers.

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  • Exactly my point in regard to stranger's help being key in emergencies and certain situations. Your point about there being a big difference between a stranger that approaches the child and a stranger the child approaches. – balanced mama Oct 31 '13 at 21:05

This is a very good question and I don't believe there can be one definitive answer. As it depends on the age of the child and the society that child lives in.

One thing that is true and applicable across all things with children is the following equation:

  1. To excessively wrap in cotton wool to protect children is damaging to a child's growth towards a well adjusted, independent adulthood.
  2. To not provide enough protection for our children, can require far more cotton wool to dress the emotional (or physical) wounds that they may incur from lack of caution.

We need to weigh up the benefits against potential costs for both points.

When 1 = 2, we have a healthy balance, if that makes sense.

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Too much freedom, too much caution, balance is the key.

For the purposes of this answer, I will discuss our current situation with my 12 and 13 year old children (my 19 year old, I am confident can handle his interactions with strangers :-) ).

When there is a predator in the neighborhood.

There has been a man trying to abduct children into his car for the past two years in our area. All the schools put out alerts, it gets on the tv from time to time . As a consequence of this we are so extreme about telling the kids to run from strangers and go to a busy shop or the like. Prior to this, I was not so neurotic.

This man has tried to abduct three children last year and this year and has not been caught. We have no way of knowing if he is still on the prowl in this area. Every time he goes off the radar for a while, there will be another incident. So it's not really a case of knowing if we're safe.

He has tried to abduct two girls and one boy of varying ages (9 - 12) from neighboring suburbs. The only thing each child had in common was, they were walking alone along the street and none of the streets were deserted I may add.

We live in a, supposedly, nice neighborhood. The thing about nice neighborhoods is there can be a veneer of safety and goodness that is not realistic.

My 12 year old daughter often walks home from school, last year she and her 13 year old brother would walk together; but he has since started high school, she will join him on that walk in the new year. She hasn't walked home alone for some time, but is under strict instructions, as they both were last year.

The rules.

  • To never split up, even if they fight, they wait for each other.
  • Never approach a car when an adult is sitting there and wants to speak to you, no matter how nice they may appear.
  • If a car pulls over and the person or people want to speak to you, go straight to a busy shop. Explain to the manager of the shop what has happened and ask to call me, if they don't have a phone. In this case they walk along a busy route and past many shops and we have discussed where to go and what to do. The good thing about our neighborhood, is most of the shopkeepers would do this and at this time of the day there is a lot of people about including people my children would know.
  • If they see people they know from school, approach them.
  • They are never to accept lifts from anyone (except a few set of well designated people we have discussed and identified) without my prior permission.

Trusting in increments.

I have explained to them clearly, that unfortunately we cannot just trust anyone we don't know. That most people are indeed ok, but it's not something that we can discern until we get to know them.

They are old enough and been having safety education at school to have a concept of what a pedophile or similar predator is. My son's friend had taken my son to a neighboring house of an older man living alone, who fixes the local children's bicycles without charge. I explained to my son, the problem is, the type of person who preys on children, will frequently ingratiate themselves to children and put themselves in positions to have contact with and gain the trust of children.

I explained, his friend may trust him, but I have never met this man (neither have his friend's parents who I do trust). I also pointed out that his friend was getting into a bit of trouble lately and his parents weren't too happy about this (a fact his parents would freely discuss in front of my son - I don't believe in sharing confidences of other parent's with my children). Please note I do not assume this man is dodgy, I am cautioning my son, not to enter the houses of strangers.

Given my children's father died when they were babies (1 and 3), they have had no real male figure in their lives for the vast majority of their lives. With all the research about the types of children who are vulnerable to predators, children craving for a father figure can be at risk. So I have had to be extra cautious, as my oldest son (the 19 yo), in particular would form intense attachments to men. I had to be watchful and mindful, without spoiling the relationships or his trust.

The balance between caution and closeting.

So this is a difficult balance. For me I err on the side of being overly cautious, as the dreadful effects of child molestation, I consider, are far worse than being cautious of strangers. I have instilled in my children it is ok to trust people, but it takes time to get to know someone. Moving into a new neighborhood and school a few years back was a great opportunity to show them how to build up trust and new friendships.

My son would always ask "do you like ...". I would always start by saying they "seem" and give my opinion (I may not have had one) as I saw it then, with the conditional statement, it is hard to make a judgement without knowing more. (In this case I refer to judgement, as a commonsense choice). Gradually, as we have gotten to know people, some we remain distant from and others are in our inner circle of trust and there is a continuum, not just based on trust, but compatibility.

I think teaching children to discern things in life as it is not always what it seems, without over analysing it or becoming unduly suspicious, it a good tool to have to cope with life,to have healthy boundaries form healthy relationships.

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