We all grew up hearing about “stranger danger.” When we were finally allowed to ride our bikes to the corner store, or walk home from school, our parents warned us to “never talk to strangers.” It made sense and was an easy rule to follow for when some gruff scary man approached who clearly fit the “stranger” image we all saw in our heads.
But the truth is, not every dangerous person looks like that. Unsafe people come in all shapes and sizes, and they have endless tricks up their sleeves. That’s why it’s a better and safer method to teach our kids about “tricky people” than the old “stranger danger” warning.
Pattie Fitzgerald is the founder of Safely Ever After, Inc., an “Innovative, Non-Fearful Safety Programs for Parents & Kids,” as described on her site. And she says that it’s crucial we parents talk to our kids about what potentially harmful people might look like, do, or say. Because the truth is, they aren’t always big scary men. They could look like a sweet grandpa. Or even a mom.
Case in point: mom of four Jodie Norton shared her terrifying story of having her sons wait outside an ER for a ride from a neighbor while she rushed inside for medical attention. As they waited, a woman with two men approached, asking them to “help” their friend in the bathroom. RED FLAG ALERT. One “trick” that “tricky people” use is asking kids for help. Safe adults will ask another adult for help, not a child.
Thankfully Norton’s kids recognized these people as unsafe and didn’t go with them to “help” their friend.
Another equally disturbing story was shared on Inside Edition recently, and it highlights yet another strategy “tricky people” use—asking enticing questions. As shown on a video captured via a doorbell camera, Emme, a 7-year-old girl from Salt Lake City, was in her front yard when a car approached. The driver began talking to her and asked if she wanted a bicycle. The quick-thinking little girl said NO and immediately ran inside to safety.
In the video, Emme says that her mother taught her to “never go with a tricky person because they try and take you to a bad place.” And her mom adds, “I’m so grateful that she knew what to do.”
These stories highlight why the old “stranger danger” warning isn’t enough. Sometimes strangers seem nice. Sometimes they look nice. And they know how to prey on innocent kids, who may want to help. Or may want a fun toy like a new bike.
As our kids get older and are allowed to go places without us, we talk more and more about “tricky people,” and have presented various scenarios to them. Our daughter loves animals and is a natural helper, so if someone asked her for help finding their dog, she’d want to say yes. We’ve talked to her about why she can’t if we aren’t there. Our son loves treats—candy, ice cream, cookies—and would have a hard time saying no if a stranger offered him one. That’s another scenario we’ve talked about and why it’s important that he says no and runs away.
We also have a “safe list” of people our kids can go with from school or an activity. Or to their house in case of emergency. It’s a very short list of people who might say, “Mommy and Daddy couldn’t get here time. You can come with me.” They know the names and faces of those few people. And those are the ONLY people they are allowed to be alone with in their home or car without our permission or without us being there.
Because for young kids, the line between stranger and “someone I know” can also get confusing. If a stranger starts up a conversation with them, and they “make friends” at the park, is that person still a stranger? What about our neighbor who we wave hello to every day? He’s not a stranger, but he’s not on that list. And it’s important that they know the distinction.
In an article on Parenting.com, Pattie Fitzgerald says, “Instead of looking for the boogie man, a child should look for the person asking them to do something that doesn’t sound right or ask if the adult is trying to get them to break one of their family’s safety rules or trick them.”
If someone who isn’t on our list tries to be alone with my child, that’s a tricky person, even if they “know” him or her. If an adult asks my kids for help, offers a treat, or says, “Don’t tell your mom and dad,” even if it’s a nice-looking mom, or a man who looks like their dad, those are signs of a tricky person.
Safely Ever After, Inc. also offers other valuable tips to talk about with your kids, such as: “I don’t have to be polite if someone makes me feel scared or uncomfortable. It’s okay to say NO, even to a grownup, if I have to.” They also tell kids to pay attention to their “Special Inner Voice,” especially if it’s sending an uh-oh feeling. Because it’s a valuable lesson to teach our kids from an early age how powerful their intuition can be.
The most important lesson we have to remember is that the simple “don’t talk to strangers” rule doesn’t encompass all scenarios. Check out Safely Ever After, Inc. with your kids. Show them the video of Emme running inside to safety. It’s not about scaring them, but, as Pattie Fitzgerald says, it’s about empowering them to keep themselves safe in potentially unsafe situations.
Whether you’re a free-range mom or a helicopter mom or somewhere in the middle, the point is that our kids at some point will have to navigate their way through the world without us. It’s on us to arm them with the knowledge and tools they need to make it safely across the bridge of childhood to the other side. And sadly, there are tricky people lurking under that bridge from time to time, so we need to make sure they’re ready before they let go of our hand.