Strangers on the news. Strangers in the park. Lurking at the grocery store. Following behind you in their cars. With your kids at the park. Each one unfamiliar, a potential for snatching your child at any moment. We've all heard the stories of strangers, and most of us have repeated such stories of caution to our children: don't talk to strangers, never go anywhere with a stranger, and on and on. You'd think by now they'd surely get the message.
Yet according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 7 out of 10 kids will still go with a stranger despite parental warnings. Individual tests done periodically by various news stations all over the country confirm such fears, repeatedly showing that some children will willingly wander off with complete strangers under some of the classic ploys an abductor may use. And it always happens with the parents claiming beforehand that, surely, their child would never walk off with a stranger.
The problem is not that kids can't follow directions, but that they lack context for the instruction. Most parents tell their children not to talk to strangers, but provide little practical knowledge that can be applied to everyday situations. They may tell a child not to talk to strangers, but then proceed to carry on conversations with them themselves in supermarket lines. They may also tell a child to respond when a stranger at the store asks their name or inquires about their day. Of course, we the parents know the types of situations where strangers pose a potential danger. But we do a lousy job of conveying this knowledge to our children.
As a result, the child ends up getting mixed messages, and lacks the context for the instructions. The consequence is that they have difficulty discerning a dangerous situation from an everyday one. Parents need to make sure that their discussions go beyond the mere "don't talk to strangers" command. Proper stranger danger training needs to include the following:
A) Rather than telling children "don't talk to strangers"; do a slight variation on this command and tell them they can only talk to strangers when you (or another caretaker) is around. Clearly define "when I'm around" to mean when their caretaker is right there in their presence and clearly visible, not upstairs or inside the house or in a different room. Apply this rule to answering the door as well. We know of at least 3 cases (and there are likely more) where a child was snatched right from their doorstep as they answered the door alone and later found murdered.
B) Parents need to provide examples of ploys an abductor might use. Merely discussing some of the basic ploys will help children develop a pattern of recognition that will make their senses tingle should anyone use a similar (or even identical) ploy in real life.
C) Role play. This gives kids a chance to practice the correct actions in advance. Kids learn better by doing than they do by someone barking commands at them. When you give them a command, it often remains an intangible concept, much akin to remembering the birth date of George Washington. When you act out that knowledge it becomes tangible, and much more accessible in a clutch situation.
D) Put them to the test. Try to arrange for a friend or colleague that they don't know to test them and see what happens. If they fail the test, a stern (but pleasant) talking to should be enough to greatly increase their odds of acting correctly the next time around, should it ever come up.
E) Repetition. Telling a child "don't talk to strangers" once and calling it good is not enough. Once is never enough with children, who learn through experience and repetition. Our child safety books on stranger danger provide a great way to offer this repetition. You can read them online, print a copy yourself, or order a set for your household.
The good news is that these tests also inevitably reveal well-trained children who do exactly the right thing in a clutch situation. One 20/20 episode showed a girl, perhaps about 7 or 8 years old, not only saving herself but preventing her younger brother from going along with an abduction attempt. They were playing in front of their house when a stranger (who in this case was an undercover safety specialist) approached. The girl was weary, watching the situation unfold from a safe distance. Her brother was enthusiastic, and readily went along with the ploy. But big sister intervened, quite literally grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him inside the house under protest to prevent him from going to see the toys in the man's trunk. Yes, kids can and will perform life-saving feats if properly trained. The thirty percent is evidence of this. It's just that too few parents adequately get the message across.
Another thing few people realize is that there are usually numerous abduction attempts for every successful abduction. An abductor need not be successful every time, just persistent enough to come across the child who allows them to be successful once. The question is, will your child be that one? For seven in ten parents, the answer could be yes. Let's fix that.
Learn more safety tips from www.keepyourchildsafe.org