Archive for the ‘stranger danger’ Category

Why “Stranger Danger” is Harmful to Kids

Monday, October 3rd, 2011


I have received several phone calls and emails recently from parents concerned about their children’s safety. Specifically, they want to know how best to teach their children about “Stranger Danger.”

As a Child Safety and Violence Prevention Instructor, I understand their concerns. Also as a Child Safety and Violence Prevention Instructor, I cringe at the phrase “Stranger Danger.” Yes, it rhymes, it’s cute, and it’s easy to remember. But it’s also misleading to the point of being downright dangerous to kids and parents.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are approximately 58,000 child abductions each year. About 57, 885 of these crimes are committed by someone the child already knows: a neighbor, friend of the family, divorced parent, etc.

In the remaining 115 kidnap cases, the child is taken by a stranger. While a very serious crime, stranger abduction accounts for two-tenths of 1% of all child abductions. Still, when I ask kids in my classes what they know about how to stay safe, one of the first things they shout out is, “Don’t talk to strangers!”

So, what happens when your child gets separated from you in a store, at the amusement park, or on a crowded street? (You can try to reassure yourself that, as a concerned and watchful parent, this will never happen. But I can pretty much guarantee you it will. Even the best parents blink their eyes occasionally, and that is all it takes for a child to spy something fascinating, and break away from mom or dad’s grip to get a closer look.)

As concerned and watchful parents, you are wise to equip your child with the knowledge of what to do should they find themselves separated from you. The problem with Stranger Danger is that it rules out the vast majority of resources available to help kids in this kind of situation: practically everyone they see around them will be a stranger to them. And they have been taught that anyone they don’t know is likely to harm them. With no familiar face to turn to, they have nowhere to go for help.

And, in the simple, black-and-white process of a young person’s thinking, if strangers are bad, then people we know must be good. This, too, is problematic because it puts a child’s trust in an adult who may not be worthy of it.

So, aside from keeping kids locked inside the safe confines of their homes until they’re 18, what can we do? Simple: teach them how to ask for help, who to ask, and where.

Make sure they know their first and last name, and their parents’ names as well. Having them memorize your cell phone number makes it easy to contact you. If your child is too young for this, consider writing down your name and cell number on a piece of paper and putting it inside a pocket of their clothing.

When you are running errands with your child, point out the people whose job is to help them if they ever need help. Show them who they can go to for assistance if they can’t find you. Should they ask that man on the corner, or would the store clerk be better? Would that guy asking for spare change be a good choice, or the mom with 2 small children inside the shop?

Talking about “what-ifs” doesn’t scare kids. In fact, they’ve probably already thought that they could get lost. What scares them is not knowing what to do if it should happen. Having a plan of action “just in case” reassures them that they can stay safe and find a good person to help them, and that they’ll be reunited with you quickly.

What’s in a Name? Too Much Information

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Heading to my gate in the Delta terminal the other day, I found myself following a family of four. Mom and Dad led the way; behind them were two young boys, Nathan and Daniel. How do I know their names? Because they were emblazoned in big, bold letters across the rolling backpack each little guy was pulling. You’ve probably seen these things. They look like this:

Nathan and Daniel seemed to love their personalized luggage. I, however, could not share their enthusiasm. While their parents sat, one reading the newspaper and the other checking messages, the boys stood at the window, watching planes take off. If I were of a nature to want to harm children rather than protect them, how easy would it have been to go up to them and say, “Hey, Nathan! Daniel! I didn’t expect to see you guys here!” Pretending that I know them makes them think I’m not a “stranger,” therefore, not a Bad Guy.

I could go on with my ruse: “Remember me? I’m a friend of your folks’. I met you guys at school a few months back. My little boy is in Nathan’s class.” Children are generally taught not to question adults, and while they might be embarrassed that they don’t remember who “I” am, they won’t reveal this. They’ll just accept my word as the truth.

So, when I continue, “Hey! Can you guys come to that little shop and help me pick out some candy for the plane ride? I’m really hungry, but I don’t know what’s good. And I’ll bet you two are experts when it comes to candy!” they’ll come along willingly.

As a child molester, kidnapper, or worse, I’ve just gotten a bonus–two kids for the price of one! What made it so easy? I knew their names. And the craziest part of the whole thing? Without realizing it, their parents are the ones who told me.

Labeling your child’s tee shirt with their first name, their backpack with a nickname, or a team jersey with their last name is unnecessary and dangerous. It gives personal information about them to everyone who reads it–information that those who don’t know them should not be privy to. Why take the chance with your child’s safety?

Movie Scene Scarily Accurate

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Talented screen actor Stanley Tucci received an Academy Award nomination for his frighteningly accurate portrayal of neighbor George Harvey in the movie The Lovely Bones, about the murder of a young girl, and its effects on her family. If you haven’t seen the film, consider watching it. It’s well-made, suspenseful, and moving. And if you do decide to rent it, pay close attention to the scene in which Harvey lures his victim to her death. It may not be what you’d expect–and it could have been transcribed from real-life.

Scene opens: Susie Salmon walks home from school by herself. Chasing a windblown slip of paper across a cornfield, she encounters a neighbor who pretends to try to catch the paper for her.

“Ohh! I hope that wasn’t your homework!”

This is a red flag–a stranger trying to help her. Called “false teaming,” it’s a common way for rapists to gain the trust of their victims. The predator spots his target, then waits for an opportunity to “help” her in some way. He might offer to carry grocery bags or heavy packages, unlock a car door, or, as in this case, try to recover something that was dropped. He knows that girls and women have been trained to be “nice,” to respond with gratitude rather than with caution.

Harvey, meeting no resistance from Susie, continues with his plan:

“Oh, hey, you’re the Salmon girl, right? Remember me? I live right down the street in the green house–Mr. Harvey.”

He’s letting her know that he’s not a “stranger,” therefore not dangerous. He doesn’t mind telling her his name and where he lives; he knows she’ll never have the chance to tell anyone what he did to her.

“How are your folks doin’? Tell ’em I said hi.”

He even knows her parents–further evidence that he’s not a stranger. And everyone knows it’s strangers you have to watch out for, not neighbors who live “right down the street.”

Susie responds politely, looking wary but offering no resistance to his somehow-inappropriate chattiness and eagerness. His excitement increases as he sees that, even though she thinks something isn’t right, she would rather be polite than trust her gut.

“You’re the perfect person for me to run into!”

Moving ahead with his lure, he implies that he needs her help–she’s just the right person he needs! When she gives a half-hearted excuse for not wanting to go with him, he feigns disappointment:

“I just worked so hard on it… and I just got excited for someone to see it….”

He knows that her need to be polite and not hurt anyone’s feelings will work for him. Against her better judgment, she follows him. He coaxes her down the ladder and into his secret chamber.

Notice, parents and guardians of children:

  • He was someone she knew. He was not a “stranger.”
  • He never touched her to get her there. He didn’t jump out of the bushes and grab her, or tackle her from behind a parked car. He never even got close to her.
  • He was not dressed in a scary costume, complete with a dark mask and black clothes that signal “Bad Guy here!”
  • He did not speak roughly or meanly to her. He called her by name in a friendly manner, and asked about her family.
  • He asked for her help, making her feel important. Adults in need of assistance of any kind should seek help from other adults, never from children.
  • He played on her emotions, making her believe she hurt his feelings, and knowing she would try to “make it up to him.”

Yes, there are child abductions/murders perpetrated by strangers. But more often, they involve someone the child has seen before–a neighbor, a friend of mom’s or dad’s, the guy who works at the store you frequent. And the reason they happen is because these people aren’t strangers. Children tend to trust adults they’ve seen before because they don’t fit their idea of a scary, black-cloaked “stranger.” When an adult has a child’s trust, luring them is easy.

Unprotected Through a Mine Field

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Last fall, on her short walk home from school, Somer Thompson was abducted by a child molester. Police found her body 2 days later, tossed into a garbage heap. Parents, friends, and neighbors were shocked that such violence could happen where they lived. They had chosen a safe place, a “good place” to raise their children. There were lots of families. Adults drove slowly because kids were always running around and playing outside. People knew their neighbors or, at least, recognized their faces. There was a feeling of trust. So, what makes a seemingly good, safe neighborhood dangerous?

Let’s take a closer look. Near Somer’s house, in between the mowed lawns and flower beds, stood an empty house that the kids walked past on their way to and from school. It was being renovated and prepped for sale. Are their any empty buildings in your neighborhood? As mobile a society as we’ve become, it’s easy to find vacant houses in just about any neighborhood. People need to move for their jobs, and sometimes, their house stays on the market longer than they expect. It’s simply a fact of life today. Even with a realtor’s lock on the front door, their are ways to get inside. Just ask any kid looking for adventure–or ask a bad guy. A building that stands empty for any length of time is an open invitation to criminals: “Here’s a hiding place. Just be quick about it; no one will see what goes on in here.” It’s a crime scene waiting to happen.

Who travels through the neighborhood every day? There are probably some at-home moms and maybe a few at-home dads, part-time and shift workers. There are the package delivery trucks driving in and out all day… letter carriers…. What about construction crews? A social worker friend shared this bit of info with me: the easiest way for a predator to move through an area unquestioned is simply to put on a hard hat. That’s it–a hard hat (easily purchased at home improvement stores or online), topping off a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, allows practically anyone to enter a neighborhood and look like he has a good reason for being there. Have you seen any new construction in your area lately? Have your kids?

Do you know your neighbors? Of course you do. But to find out some facts that may not come up at a block party or over coffee with a moms’ group, check out This site discloses the locations of registered sex offenders throughout the United States. It can be a real eye-opener.

I typed my address in and clicked Search. It showed me, on a map, the locations of the homes of 38 registered sex offenders in my area. When Somer Thompson’s neighbors did the same, the search brought up the names and locations of 162 registered offenders. 162 within a 5-mile-radius of her home. What they thought was a friendly, safe community turned out to be a veritable mine field, where innocent children walked daily among dangerous predators.

The point of all this is not to scare parents, not to declare that “no place is safe!” It’s to advise you to be aware. Dangers exist everywhere. You don’t have to raise your kids in a bubble; you can let them out of your sight for periods of time. Just teach them how to navigate safely through the world. The outdated warning, “Don’t talk to strangers” not only scares kids needlessly; it can prevent them from asking for help when they’re in danger. Instead, walk their route to school with them and point out places along the way that they can go to for help if they need it: “There’s Mrs. Green’s house; pound on her door if someone is following you,” or “Run into that coffee shop and tell the cashier if anyone makes you uncomfortable.”

Teach them about grown-ups who ask them for help: “Can you help me find my puppy?” and “Can you tell me how to get to the park,” for example. This is a common trick used by predators to get kids to go somewhere with them. Make sure your children understand that it is not their job to help a grown-up; that’s for other grown-ups to do.

Another way molesters lure children is by offering the chance to watch tv and videos, or play with toys and electronic games. Again, let your kids know that if anyone tells them this, it’s a trick. They need to run for help to one of the safe places you’ve pointed out to them.

Don’t let your kids walk unprotected through a mine field. If something happens, it can destroy their life and yours. Empower them with the knowledge that they’re important and that nobody is allowed to hurt them. They’ll wear this knowledge like armor, and it will help keep them safe.

And Strangers Aren’t All Bad Guys

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

In my last blog entry, I talked about how the Bad Guy isn’t always a stranger. So, teaching kids about Stranger Danger and painting anyone they don’t know with an “evil” brush doesn’t help them as much as parents might think. First, as I mentioned, it becomes confusing if a neighbor or “friend of the family” takes indecent liberties or otherwise tries to hurt them. The child doesn’t think, “Stop touching me; I don’t like it and I’m going to tell!” but rather, “This person is our friend, so this must be okay.”

Second, it doesn’t prepare a child to look for help outside of a known circle of adults. What if your young son or daughter is in an open, public place—the movies, a playground, even a store—and the accompanying adult steps away momentarily? Maybe they want to make a call, go to the restroom, or ask the salesperson a question. And what if your son or daughter is then approached by a predator?

Your child may be able to run away. But who will he run to for safety? Who will she tell to call 911?  Kids need to be taught how to pick a safe stranger out of a crowd, especially if they’re alone or just with other kids. Having their own cell phone isn’t the answer. Having sound judgment and knowing how to make smart choices is.

There are ways to choose whom to go to for help in a crowd. They’re simple and clear, and kids understand them. We teach them in radKIDS because knowing who to go to for help can help save a kid’s life.

The Bad Guy May Not Be a Stranger

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Recently, a little girl was kidnapped while walking home from school. She was sexually abused. Murdered. And—in the final insult to her precious life and potential—she was thrown into a dumpster like garbage.

Her distraught mother appeared on national television, thanking police for their hard work. She then implored parents, “Tell your children about Stranger Danger!” She explained that her daughter loved everyone she met, trusted them immediately, and never thought anyone would hurt her.

I certainly would not disagree with the words of a grieving mother. She has my deepest sympathy. What I would like to add to her warning is, “The danger may not have come from a stranger.”

I don’t know who inflicted such horror against this little girl. But I do know that, in cases of child-kidnapping, less than one-fourth are committed by someone who is a complete stranger to the victim. Nearly half are by a family member (usually during a custody dispute), and 27% are by someone outside the family, but known to the child. These “acquaintance kidnappings” are perpetrated most often for the purpose of committing physical and/or sexual violence against the child. One study found that, in 90% of rapes of children under 12, the attacker was known to the victim prior to the crime: as a neighbor… his best friend’s dad… the nice man who worked with her mom.

So, if strangers are bad and people we know are bad… what should we teach our children—that everyone is bad? Of course not. The world is full of good, loving, helpful people, and these are who our children should turn to when they need help. But, if kids are taught never to speak to someone they don’t know, they may be very limited in whom they can approach to help them in an emergency.

A smart strategy is to teach them the difference, not between Strangers and People We Know, but between Good People and Bad People. And that difference lies not in whether you’ve met someone previously, but in behavior. Good People respect kids. They don’t cross social, legal, or moral boundaries and force kids to join them. Nor do they do anything to make children feel uncomfortable.

With guidance and the permission to make their own judgments about teens and adults around them, kids will quickly be able to determine who they need to watch out for and, more important, who they can run to if they need help.

When is a Stranger Not a Stranger

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

It’s that time of year. The holiday season is gearing up. The twinkling lights, the sparkling snowflakes, and the “old familiar carols” have been setting the mood in stores for weeks. In just a few more days, we’ll be able to take the kids to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap, and maybe pick up a few bargains before we leave. But, as you’re crossing items off your To Do list and your Gift list, keep one thing in mind: Would your child know what to do if someone tried to walk him or her out of a store?

It can happen anywhere. But that doesn’t mean you should be afraid. It does mean you should be prepared–and you should prepare your child. Perhaps the biggest misconception taught to children by concerned, loving parents is, “Don’t talk to strangers!”

In my experience as a radKIDS Instructor, when I ask for a definition of the word stranger, many kids offer up descriptions of scary men in black capes and masks. It’s safe to assume that no one fitting this image will approach your child and attempt to lure them away in the moment you turn to look at a price tag.

An important lesson may be learned from the experience of Adam Walsh, the 7-year-old boy who was killed after being abducted from a department store in 1981. (His father, John Walsh, now hosts America’s Most Wanted.)

Adam was looking at a video game, while his mother shopped a few aisles over. A plainly-dressed man the boy had never met came up to him and commented about the game, then left. He returned a few minutes later and continued to chat. As Adam had now encountered this man a second time, it’s believed he thought the man was no longer a stranger. Therefore, it would be safe to go with him. The man led Adam away–and most likely, to his death.

What if a child simply gets separated from mom or dad in a busy shopping mall or crowded store? If they cannot approach a stranger for help, who can they ask? A frightened, crying little one is vulnerable to the actions of a “kind-hearted” abductor: “Here, honey, take my hand. I think I just saw mommy walk outside. Let’s go to her….”

Kids must be empowered to do what they need to do to stay safe. If that means asking for help from someone they’ve never met, they must be taught how to choose help wisely. They must learn how to recognize a good stranger from a bad one, and how to react to ensure their safety.

A New Meaning to Car Safety

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

The other day, a friend of mine came home to find a recorded message from the school principal on her answering machine. It seems that 2 students were walking home from school and noticed, after a few blocks, that a car was following them slowly. The kids wrote down the car’s license plate number, went into their home, and called the police. It turns out that the car belongs to a registered child sexual offender who lives in the area. When questioned by police, the man admitted to following the kids home, but denied he planned to hurt anyone.

My friend, the mother of 2 other students in that school, is concerned because 1) this criminal knows what time school lets out every day, 2) he knows which kids walk home, 3) he has stalked at least 2 and now knows where they live, and 4) he knows, by whether they walked through an open door or used a key or alarm code to get in, if anyone is home to greet them. As he stalked these children, he was also able to determine whether their street is busy or quiet. A simple glance at the number of parked cars tells him if anyone is around and likely to report a cry for help.

In her message to the school’s families, the principal stated that the school would be taking additional and immediate steps to insure students’ safety against this sort of threat. But, she added, once the children left the safe haven of the campus, their security rested within themselves and their parents.

This is where proactive self-defense comes in. Does your child walk to school? Or walk even a block or so home from the bus stop? It might be a good idea to walk that route with them and point out some safety options: “What if someone was following you in a car on this road?” If it’s a main road, the child could enter a store or business and state the need to call 911 (and then Mom or Dad). On a quiet lane, it’s important to know houses of friends or neighbors along the way who would be home and able to help in a dangerous situation.

Another common scenario: someone drives up, lowers their window, and asks for directions. Is it okay with you if your child tells a stranger how to get to the park? It shouldn’t be. It can put them within arms’ reach of a predator.

With kidnappers and child sex offenders brazenly cruising past schoolyards and playgrounds, following children home and luring them into get-away cars, it’s urgent that we teach our kids how to protect themselves. There’s a lot more to “car safety” these days than just buckling a seatbelt.