“Don’t Talk To Strangers” Is Not Enough
By Meyer Glaser, Psy.D.
When speaking to young children it is not easy to make the distinction between a friendly trustworthy person, and a seemingly friendly dangerous person. Sadly, people who are known to the family perpetrate most abductions and abuse. Thus teaching children to be wary of strangers is not enough.
What then can be an effective message to our children that will help to keep them safe? Together with our children we can create a “Mind Bank.” This is a list of people who are safe for the children to go with and to stay with. We can then tell our children that if a person is trying to convince a child to go with them, and that person is not in the “Mind Bank,” that the child must not go. We can tell them about some of the tricks a kidnapper might try, such as asking for help finding a lost dog, or checking out new video games in their car.
The question of whether we want to bring up this topic at all is a valid one. Do we want to portray the world as unsafe to our children? My advice is that if you are going to raise the topic, it is important to speak in practical terms which young children can understand. It is best not to present the world as a generally dangerous place with unknown dangers lurking anywhere parents are not nearby. Better to make a plan that will help the children feel empowered that there are things they can do to stay safe.
I use a game called “Safety First” for this purpose. The game presents the children with many different situations in different locations such as the mall, playground, and the school bus. The children are given choices about what they should do in dangerous circumstance. When given a choice between running away from a possible abductor and going with them, the children usually answer correctly. The game helps children to think about these scenarios while in a safe, friendly, and relaxed environment. The world is not made to appear a threatening place and good choices are praised. Parents do not need the game in order to take the same approach. Rehearsing the correct actions in discussions and role-playing with our children can have the same benefit. We can model the correct choices for our children, and we can explain why some choices are not safe. Many of these situations do not present obvious or clear-cut choices for our children. Only through discussion and practice can we prepare them to make the right choice. Presenting the world as an unsafe place, with lurking but unspecified dangers, will not help prepare them to make the right decisions.