But we have also learned from sad experience that while it is important to be wary and on guard around strangers, sometimes strangers are helpers. I think of the story of Brennan Hawkins from 2005 who was lost in the woods and eluded rescuers for several days because they were strangers.
In addition, statistics are clear that children are more often abducted and harmed by people they know than by strangers.
So how do we teach our children to be appropriately on guard about strangers while at the same time trusting those who should be trusted?
Understand who strangers are and are not. Generally, we need to teach children that strangers are people they don't know well. But that definition can also apply to a firefighter, a police officer, or a search and rescue worker who is trying to help. So we need to help children learn that it is OK to trust some trustworthy strangers when the children are at risk.
Teach basic stranger rules. We have tried to teach our children four very basic rules about interacting with people they don't know, even if they seem nice.
- Don't go with a stranger
- Don't get into a car with a stranger
- Don't answer questions a stranger asks
- Don't accept anything from a stranger
Help them find trusted places. When our kids were walking home from school or out with friends in the neighborhood, we wanted them to know that there were some safe places they could go if they ever felt in danger. We taught them that the library, the school and the church were safe places they could go if they were afraid and could call home. In addition, we had a few well-trusted neighbors whose homes we had been in and felt comfortable with. If they were afraid of a stranger, they could go to one of these safe places and call us.
Practice the buddy system. We worked hard to teach our kids not be out alone in the neighborhood and not to wander off at the store or places where they were with us. There is strength in numbers and children are more likely to be targeted when they are alone than when they are with others.
Kids should take care of themselves, not of adults. Wer also taught our kids that adults should not ask kids for help, that they should ask other adults. Predators often use a request for help (directions, finding a lost puppy, etc.) as a way to get a child alone, so they knew that if an adult asked them for help, it was a not a good thing and that they should be concerned.
Teach them to trust their feelings. Kids, as well as adults, often have a sixth sense about dangerous situations. For kids, experience has not refined that sense very much, but they can still trust that intuition. If they are concerned about a situation, they should get out.
Practice scenarios. Children learn best when they have some experience, rather than just seeing or hearing a parent teach them. So practice some situations with them. Help them learn to say "no" to an adult they don't trust. Play roles in situations that you create. If someone other than mom or dad comes to pick them up at school, help them practice asking for the family code word. If someone they don't know asks them to help find a lost kitten, coach them to say "no" and run away. If someone tries to grab them, help them learn how to fight back, run away and yell "This is not my daddy (or mommy)." And practice some rescue situations (lost in the woods, smoke in the house) and help them learn to respond to legitimate rescuers.
Our children need to grow up in a world where they are safe, and fathers have an important role to play in helping them make good decisions, to be wary of people who might harm them, and to know how to react when they feel threatened. Teaching children these important attitudes and skills will help them stay safe and grow up to become confident and responsible adults.