Many people are familiar with the concept of “stranger danger” as it relates to child safety, but experts caution that we should avoid teaching young children that everyone who is unknown to them is likely to be dangerous. A child who is lost in a store, for instance, will likely need to seek help from a stranger (such as a store clerk or security guard) in order to be reunited with a parent or caregiver. So what’s the best way to help children learn to recognize the difference between people who intend to harm them, or bad strangers, and people they simply don’t know well?
Young children need basic, concrete clues to look for when learning to identify good strangers vs. bad strangers because they tend to judge people’s character strictly by their appearance, and often mistake a police officer who looks gruff or imposing for a bad stranger. The smiling man who offers candy and a ride in his car, on the other hand, may look like a friend. When learning to spot bad strangers, however, it’s more important to teach children to think about what people do than how they look. Explain to your children that they should never take rides, candy, or gifts from someone they don’t know well, and that they should never leave any location with a stranger, no matter how “nice” that person may appear. Good strangers will interact with your child in busy, open, or public settings; only bad strangers will try to bring your child to a place where they will be alone and isolated.
Bad strangers may also do things that make your child frightened or uncomfortable, such as asking them to lie or disobey their parents, or to keep a secret from their parents. Let your children know that they should listen to their instincts, and that if any of those things occur (or if a situation just doesn’t feel right to them), they should seek out a trusted adult right away. Another key point to address is that it’s okay to say no, and to kick, fight, or yell—even indoors—if a stranger tries to grab or restrain your child.
Role-playing can be a helpful tool in teaching your young child to recognize good vs. bad strangers, and it’s also useful in helping children to craft a plan in the event that they encounter bad strangers in different environments. In addition to this strategy, take the opportunity to point out good strangers—such as police officers, teachers, librarians, even other parents with children—whenever you can, so that your children will know who they can safely ask for help if they get separated from you.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep your children safe from bad strangers is to keep the conversation open and ongoing. As your children grow, the situations in which they may encounter bad strangers will likely change, but the danger will still exist. By continually talking with your children about bad strangers as new challenges arise, you can help to ensure that they remain as safe as possible both now and in the future.