Is “Stranger Danger” Still Relevant to Teach Kids?

Every parent wants to keep their child safe. This is easiest when our children are with us. However, there comes a time when our kids are not under our watchful eye. It is during these times we want our kids to be street-smart. Many of us are familiar with the term “stranger danger,” which can be traced back to the 1960s.

Key takeaways:

This catchy phrase is still taught by some parents and educators today. Let’s look into why stranger danger is no longer helpful, and what the experts now recommend.

Why “stranger danger” is outdated and doesn’t work

The term stranger danger cautions children to stay away from strangers. Recent research shows that it is not the best way to teach kids how to protect themselves. First, it is difficult for children to grasp the concept of a stranger. In particular, younger children do not grasp the concept of what it means to be a stranger. Developmentally speaking, it’s impossible to teach kids what a stranger is. Some kids may think a stranger is an ugly, scary-looking person. Next, children should learn that some strangers, such as store clerks, police officers, and parents with children, can be helpful. Finally, the phrase doesn’t reflect that 90% of the harm done to children is by someone they know.

What to teach instead of “stranger danger”

We now have better ways to teach kids about personal safety that reflect current research. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), simply teaching kids to avoid strangers will not always help if they are in danger. True stranger abduction of children is rare. Avoiding strangers does not help kids who are being harmed by neighbors, family, or acquaintances.

Don’t try to warn children about certain types of people. Instead, teach kids what to do in dangerous situations. Patti Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After recommends that instead of teaching “‘stranger danger,”’ children should be taught about “tricky people”. This new phrase is helpful because it teaches kids that they may need to practice caution around people they know.

Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital recommends talking to your child starting at an early age and changing the lessons over time as he or she develops.

Preschoolers (ages 3-5) are naturally curious but unable to judge others’ intentions.

  • Teach them their name, and address, and to call 911.
  • Use games and play to teach them about certain situations.
  • Tell them who you know and trust.
  • Teach them they should not go anywhere with anyone without checking first.

School-age (ages 5-9) wish to please adults and may be easily tricked.

  • Interested in right and wrong and able to learn safety rules.
  • Use concrete examples and role-playing to teach them about unsafe situations.
  • Ask them to repeat the rules back to you.

Tweens and teens (ages 10 and up) are learning to judge potentially dangerous situations.

  • Continue talking about risky situations.
  • Teach them using real-life examples.
  • Warn them that they must ignore peer pressure to stay safe and not try to “act cool.”

Teach kids that doing something is a great way to stay safe. Eighty-three percent of children who escaped a dangerous situation took action such as running away, kicking or yelling.

Have safety talks without causing anxiety

It is possible to teach children about safety without frightening them. Talk to children and be calm, reassuring, and positive. Don’t make it seem as though there is danger everywhere they turn. Instead, teach them that they are capable and they can depend on you to keep them safe. Teach your children to trust their instincts. If they feel unsafe in a situation, they should immediately find you or a trusted adult pre-approved by you.

When talking to kids about unsafe people, try these tips:

  1. Don’t say “Never talk to strangers.” Instead say “If you need help, look for a uniformed police officer, a store clerk wearing a name tag, or a parent with children.”
  2. Don’t say “Stay away from people you don’t know.” Try saying “You must get my permission before going anywhere with anyone.”

The NCMEC also advises being aware of the common tricks used to lure children and offers solutions on how to beat these tricks.

The top tricks used to lure children are:

  1. Offering a ride.
  2. Offering candy or treats.
  3. Asking a question or asking for help.
  4. Offering money.
  5. Using an animal.

Telling your children about these tricks is key. Tell your child to be aware of anyone asking them for directions, help to find a lost pet, or to carry something. Tell them that adults don’t ask kids for help. Adults should ask other adults for help. Teach them to say “I can't help you” in a firm voice and practice this with them.

Parents need to know the latest expert advice on personal safety for kids. “Stranger danger” is not entirely helpful when teaching our children how to be safe. Parents and guardians should know the tricks that are used against children and how to educate their children on dangerous situations. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children has wonderful resources such as role-playing scenarios, what parents should know, and the best words to use when teaching children to be safe.

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