Last week a momentous event took place in our house: my 8-year-old son began to walk to school alone. (My 4-year-old daughter and I are slightly bereft!)
Now, when I say alone, he walks with three other boys all the same age. They have been instructed to stay together and have also been schooled in road safety. Yet the one thing that worries me much more is the threat of stranger danger.
My son is almost 9, but incredibly friendly, super trusting, and also at times a show-off. Would he be the kid who could easily be coerced into seeing a new puppy or chatting to a stranger about the joys of his favorite football team? Would he be tempted away by promises of sweets, or more likely, be coerced into helping someone (he is always so kind and empathetic) who is in fact a predator?
The thought of “how on earth do I keep him safe, while at the same time allowing him the independence he craves (and indeed needs in order to grow up)” has been keeping me awake at night.
This week, YouTube prankster Joey Salads posted the video above that shows him asking several moms at a playground if he could do a social experiment and see how easy it is to persuade their kids to come with him. The moms were completely convinced that their kids wouldn’t go, sure that they were well-versed in stranger danger. They told Salads that they warn their kids about it “every day.”
Yet to their horror, the kids were mesmerized by Salads’ dog and after a brief chat, were led away by him completely willingly. It is absolutely terrifying.
Salad ends the video with a powerful statistic: “Over 700 children are abducted a day. That’s over a quarter a million a year – are your kids safe?”
So how can we imprint on our kids the need to NOT talk to or go with strangers?
Oddly enough, a favorite childhood film of mine helped me in more ways than I could have imagined. Quite a while back, when my son was about 5, I let him watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He loved it. Walking home from school the following day, we talked about how friendly kids are, and he announced that “everyone loves kids.” I explained this isn’t the case. That there are some bad people around.
He then piped up, “Like the man in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Never have I been more grateful for the man who haunted my childhood dreams — the child-catcher. In one movie, he had shown my son the danger of people who offer sweets and lollipops to kids and then snare them away to a dungeon. It made him see that no matter what they say, all people are not good.
The struggle I’m having with teaching my kids about stranger danger is that I don’t want to scare them. I want them to have manners and be respectful of people. I want them to charge at life and not fear it. I want them to be able to walk to school and gain some independence — an important part of growing up. But I also, most of all, want them to be safe.
So what can I do?
The U.K.’s national crime prevention center suggests that firstly, we need to tell our kids that strangers won’t look like scary villains or monsters. They can look pretty, friendly, and nice. But what should we tell our kids to do if they need help? That’s where the talk of “safe strangers” comes into play. Police officers, firefighters, and teachers are all examples of very recognizable safe strangers. One tip they give is to “teach them ‘No, Go, Yell, Tell.’ If in a dangerous situation, kids should say no, run away, yell as loud as they can, and tell a trusted adult what happened right away.”
The center also suggests acting out role-plays at home, which I thought was a really clever way to instill in a child’s mind what they should physically do if they are approached by a stranger. I immediately showed my kids the Joey Salads video of the stranger danger test and began to do some role-playing. Bless my son, but he thought Salads was being nice at first and didn’t understand that he was proving how easy it is to get a kid to walk away with him. His innocence and trusting nature feel like a blessing and a curse.
So back to the crime prevention center, some other child safety tips they suggested include:
1. Know where your children are at all times.
Make it a rule that your children must ask permission or check in with you before going anywhere. Give your children your work and cell phone numbers so they can reach you at all times.
2. Point out safe places.
Show your children safe places to play, safe roads and paths to take, and safe places to go if there’s trouble.
3. Teach children to trust their instincts.
Explain that if they ever feel scared or uncomfortable, they should get away as fast as they can and tell an adult. Teach your children to be assertive. Make sure they know that it’s okay to say no to an adult and to run away from adults in dangerous situations.
4. Encourage your children to play with others.
There’s safety in numbers!
Meanwhile, the site also offers a page for kids to read on how to deal with strangers or scary situations.
According to more advice I found on Facebook, kids should have a refresher course every year, as over time they can forget. I clearly remember my own mother schooling me in stranger danger, and I think she must have overdone it because it made me overly paranoid. I grew up in fear of people who snatched kids and was very nervous about biking to my friend’s house two streets away or getting a bus into town. Then again, I was always safe, so perhaps my mom was right to imprint her fears on me so strongly.
I don’t want to freak my kids out, so advice says I should reassure them that most adults are loving, caring, and trustworthy, and I should discuss good, safe, and friendly people in the world to avoid creating a fear of all adults.
Obviously there are far more topics to cover with them as well: online danger, non-stranger danger, etc. The difficulty is knowing how much information to give them and at what time. My 4-year-old is rarely not by my side or with her father, so how vigilant do I have to be with her on stranger danger?
So far, I’m trusting my instincts. That she is never too young to know about this subject. While I’m determined not to scare her, there is also nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my children safe.
Do you think your kids would pass this stranger danger test?
Uh oh! Please try again later.