Out with “Stranger Danger” in with “Stranger Awareness”



This is a very “basic” but often mis-treated topic that a lot of parents, myself included, were taught to handle all wrong…

Most of us teach our kids to be afraid of strangers and to avoid them at all costs. This is okay for keeping them safe, right? Well, no, actually, if they were ever in a situation where they’ve had to get away from an unsafe adult(more on this in a minute) they will likely find it hard to seek out help if they have been taught never to talk to anyone they don’t know, possibly putting them at further risk.

Here’s a quick example/experiment:

Ask your child about strangers(something like this) “Billy, what is a stranger?” Their answer may surprise you. They probably know that a stranger is someone they don’t know and likely should be avoided. So here’s a few follow up questions to consider…

-Is someone they’ve been introduced to a stranger? Most times I find very few kids get this right when I teach seminars, especially when I’ve been invited in to a daycare or school. Most of them think I’m NOT a stranger, when in fact I am the definition of a stranger. After all, they’ve only just met me and know barely anything about me.

-Are Police Officers/Fire Fighters Strangers? Again, the answer is resoundingly “NO”. Unless the person in question is a family member or close friend, they are still a stranger.

-Is the man who lives across the street a stranger?

And this is where the line starts to get fuzzy… and where most predators will take advantage.

When I was a kid(back in the 80’s and 90’s) I was told “All strangers are BAD”, but this is clearly not true as we saw above. Quite the opposite in fact…

Most “strangers” will not cause problems for kids. It’s only a small percentage that will, and typically not in some of the horrifying ways portrayed on the news and tv shows(like abductions), those are very rare, and even in most cases it’s someone the child knows/interacts with regularly that will cause them problems. We shouldn’t rule out “stranger danger” entirely, however, teaching them how to identify BEHAVIOR over their relationship to a person is much more important.

We need to give our kids more credit, they’re smarter and so much more perceptive than you know.

Here’s a few questions/thoughts to help them qualify “who’s who”.

“Do responsible adults ask kids for help with…”  Which would be followed by “finding a lost pet”, “finding a lost child”, “loading objects into their vehicle/home”.

The point is this, we can expect our children to help us with these kinds of things, and most kids are typically glad to help others, but that does not entitle a complete stranger to asking for help from a child, especially without a parent present or without the parents permission.

Try to be as specific as possible with the examples you use. I often use my own children’s and pets names in the examples and try to get as creative as possible when thinking up new ones. Remember to have some fun with this and keep it light, children retain information better when they had fun learning it(I like to use a goofy example or two).

Use some props. Run through not just talking about the situation, but physically go through a few of them, involve some other friends with kids or family members and make it almost a game with some props(dog leashes, remote controls for an RC car/Drone/Helicopter, kid’s sweatshirt, etc…)

This alone will help get kids thinking about what behavior is appropriate, and should be expected, of adults and opens the door to a higher level of thinking that will carry over to adulthood. Honestly, the questions for adults are only slightly reframed for different scenarios, literally almost all of this will carry over into their adult life.

The point in all of this is to get them to think critically and make observations about people quickly as to not terrify them of ever meeting new people. I started using the term “unsafe adults” to differentiate between someone you don’t know and someone who has bad intentions for you(based on the behaviors we’ve touched on already). It’s good to teach your children to be intuitive about people at a young age, putting them in controlled situations with “strangers” – asking for help from a store employee, paying for something on their own, placing their own food order at restaurants, are all good ways to build some independence.

But don’t miss out on the lessons to be learned with these situations, ask them questions about the people they interacted with to see what kind of responses you get. It could be anything from “what were they wearing” to “how did that person make you feel”, obviously making sure it wasn’t their nerves making them feel funny, but most kids don’t have the same anxiety level as adults do about this(it’s usually our anxiety they feed off of anyway).

Some other basic things to just remind them of while you’re going through these exercises with them are other suspicious behavior from adults in public places. Here’s a few examples:

-An adult in the area intended for children who does not clearly have a child with them
-An adult getting to “friendly” with them or other children who does not know this adult
-An adult who makes gestures toward them that makes your child feel “funny”(dropping feeling in their stomach, hairs stand up on their neck, etc…)

Moving On

After they have “mastered” this step, the next thing they need to know is what to do after the fact. In other words, someone tried to get your child to go off somewhere with them or any other scenario you can cook up.

First, they need to get as far away from the person as possible. Make sure they know to keep an eye on them and not just to turn their back and walk away. Teach them to be confident and say “NO” if someone does approach them for “help” with something, remind them constantly this is a lure and the person is not actually seeking their help, but has bad intentions.

Next, they need to find a RESPONSIBLE ADULT. That means one of the following:

-You(their parents)
-A Police Officer(make sure they know what to look for, what do they wear, what do they drive, etc…)
-A Mom with Kids(adult white males cause a majority of “problems” for kids…)
-A Store employee(Again, explain what to look for… usually someone behind a register is a safe bet)

This may seem like a “no-brainer” to you or I, but it was never taught to me and I know of several “experts” who don’t teach these things to kids either…

Your child should make it clear to whomever they find to help them that someone whom they do not know tried getting them to ______(make them fill in the blank when you practice this, and it needs to match the scenario you presented). They need to be articulate and describe it to the best of their ability, someone’s life could literally depend on it.

They should also be able to identify you as their parent, not by “Mom” or “Dad”, but by your first and last name in case they are not able to find you. My kids knew mine and their mother’s phone number, first and last name, home address, my work address, and their grandparents first and last names by the age of 3(well, my son was about 4 before he got all of those…).

I’m not saying I’m better than everyone, it was important to me they know this information and I drilled it into them every time someone called(what’s the number they had to call to talk to daddy?), when we pulled up onto our street I’d ask them “what street are we on now?”(they first learned the city, then the street, then the house number, it seemed to work well), and I constantly  quizzed them on the information making sure to praise them if they got it right. Don’t worry, they weren’t punished for getting it wrong.

I know this is overlooked quite a bit, which is why I hammer on it so much, but I’ve had kids at 8-12 years old who don’t know their parents first names or phone numbers, not even what street they live on or what color their house is. Paying attention to the right details can make all the difference.

Give an accurate description.

It sounds crazy, but kids are very observant, and they will surprise you with the things they notice. I had one girl, who was about 7 years old, give a description of me down to the tattoos I have under my arms almost exactly, and my arms barely left my side! The crazy thing is they weren’t told to even make any observation of me whatsoever, I was there, standing on the side, and left the room. The conversation then turned to “who can give me a description of Mr. Green?”, at which time these kids, who hadn’t even focused on me as of yet, gave a fairly accurate description. But there are a few things you should have them direct their attention to so they’re not missing the important details.

What they should focus on:

-Hair Color
-Eye Color
-Visible Scars
-Tattoos(even just location if not specifics)
-Hair Style(long, short, etc…)

Basically, things that are hard or impossible to change.

THEN they should worry about:

-Clothes(jeans or khaki, pants or shorts, sweatshirt or t-shirt)
-Voice(gruff or soft, deep or high)
-Type of vehicle(car or bike, were they on foot?)

In other words, things that might change quickly with little effort should be the least focused on, but can help nonetheless.

These are skills that need to be practiced, which requires them to pay attention in public places. Coming from someone with 2 kids, I know for sure mine could always use more of that!

The reason I’ve chosen to go this route and not touch on the topic of the stereotypical “stranger offering candy” kind of scenario is the fact that kids have already been exposed to that, as I’m sure you have as well. It’s simply a case of “NO” and walk away. But we will cover that in another topic.

This is meant to teach your children to be more aware of the people around them so they never even get close to “the guy in the creepy van”.

The goal of this is not to make your child paranoid to every single person they see, but to teach them to think critically(skepticism is okay). They shouldn’t completely lose the ability to trust another human being. It’s a balancing act you will have to work with them on mastering as they get older(the joys of parenting!)

Also, don’t forget the basics of keeping your children close in public crowded areas, make sure they can be seen at all times and are within arms reach in a store and ear shot outdoors(parks)… that means you probably shouldn’t have your face buried in Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram newsfeeds…

If you have any questions or would like more information about further self-defense training, feel free to contact me at (262)951-6317 or justin@post35.net

Again, remember this is a guide, it does not contain every possible scenario you or your child might encounter.