Stranger Danger vs. Tricky People

Family Matters on 03.22.12
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Lately my inbox has been filled with warnings about a guy in his 40s attempting to call little girls to his car. He's pretty bold; in the last two weeks he's been in four different neighborhoods in Atlanta -- some as far as 20 miles apart -- in what appears to be attempts to lure a child into his vehicle (the license plate of which is obscured by a bike on the back of the car). It's clear that he's intent on ensnaring a kid, and it's absolutely chilling.

In fact it makes my palms sweat and stomach plummet just thinking about it. I'm on high alert, just as the rest of my community is. So when an email forwarding a link to ChecklistMommy's blog arrived I found myself contemplating the different approaches we use when discussing "bad people" with our children. The blog post centers around Safely Ever After's Patti Fitzgerald, who urges parents to quit telling their kids not to talk to strangers and start teaching them about who's safe and who's not.

Stranger Danger
You've probably heard about stranger danger -- either from your kid's school or the media. The idea is for children not to engage in conversations with strangers. Kids are also told not to help a stranger, tell a stranger her name, let a stranger touch her food or drink or touch her in any way. Kids are encouraged to remember license plate numbers of suspicious people and memorize a code. The code is used in case of emergency when a parent may have a friend or someone unknown to the child pick the kid up from school. It's a way to communicate to the child that it's OK to go with the person.

All of this seems reasonable, but some people say that stranger danger glosses over the fact that most child sexual abuse and abduction is perpetrated not by a stranger, but by family friend or acquaintance. Another criticism is that teaching your child that everyone is a stranger puts him in a constant state of fear when he walks out the door, rather than arming him with information to help him suss out the hallmarks of an iffy person or situation.

Who's a Tricky Person?
This is where the "tricky person" concept comes in when kids are trying to navigate the world without their parents. For some kids, a quick "hello" may move someone from the "stranger" column into the "friend" column. So the idea is to focus on a person's behavior rather than his status as a stranger. Kids are taught that tricky people ask kids for help. Kids come to understand that adults do not need directions from kids or help finding a puppy or help lifting a box. The message is that it's suspicious for an adult to make a request for help, in general, when a kid is alone or without a parent.

Kids are also taught that "tricky people" -- strangers or people they know -- tell kids to keep a secret from their parents or say that it's OK to do something and that they don't need to ask their parents for permission. Parents are part of the equation, too. Fitzgerald tells parents that they can be lulled into a state of trust, inadvertently allowing more interaction with a tricky person. So if your kid comes home with gifts from an adult, is told your child is special and needs one-on-one time with the adult, or your toddler starts referring to his genitalia with nicknames unfamiliar to you, you should investigate.

The Grey Area
Some of this reminds me of Lenore Skenazy, who began the freerange parenting movement when she detailed her 9 year old's foray into the New York subway system, navigating it on his own with nary a cell phone in his pocket (but with plenty of prepping and dry-runs with his parents). Skenazy argues that we've become paralyzed with fear when it comes to our kids and their safety, and as a result we're not letting kids engage in critical thinking and independent action. Skenazy has a similar observation that Fitzgerald has about stranger danger: Teaching kids not to talk to strangers could inadvertently cause them not to seek out help when they need it most.

But then there's the tragic case last summer in New York when an 8 year old boy walking back from camp lost his way and asked directions from a man who abducted and killed him. I try to think rationally about this case -- it was a chance encounter; such encounters are extremely rare -- and yet it happened.

Melding the Two Approaches
I'm very aware that what I tell my daughter about the world is directly informing her own worldview and how she makes her choices. While I wish that we lived in a world of 24-hour-rainbows-and-kittens, we don't, and it pains me to tell her about all the ills of the world that bring sorrow to a parent's heart. But I do want her to be safe, and so I have two choices: never let her outside or teach her that the world can be beautiful and sinister -- but ultimately navigable.   

What if you could meld stranger danger with tricky people? What if you could teach your child to be aware of the people around her and they way they behave without bringing in elements of paranoia at every turn? Is it even possible, or are we as a species hardwired to look for the boogeyman in every situation? And are we ultimately the better for it?  

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