The Danger of Stranger Danger (Hint: It doesn't work)
‘Stranger Danger’ and other myths...
This article is designed to inspire some thought from parents about how we educate our kids on personal safety. In particular I’ve chosen to address some of the myths and out-dated concepts which have been taught to kids for generations and which need to be updated. I am limited by the length of this article so have done my best to address some key points without going into detail.
Myth # 1: ‘Stranger Danger’
Note: I was interviewed by TVNZ a few years back about self defence for kids, and I reiterated this view. I received a lot of negative comments about it, as if I was stepping on something dear to our hearts. Thankfully the message is now changing and getting through, but it is still the 'go to' message for this subject. Here's why it needs to change.
This is the age old, time-tested message that almost every child has heard:
“Never talk to strangers”.
Unfortunately the test of time has only proven one thing: and that is that this concept mostly does not work and may actually place your child in danger. Certainly this is the case when this concept is taught in isolation.
The ‘Stranger Danger’ message is an out-dated, redundant concept and if it ever had any relevance it certainly doesn’t any more. I know that many adults reading this may have grown up hearing this message from their well-meaning parents (I did), so if you are one of those people and you are feeling any resistance to what I am saying, bear with me while we explore the reasons that this idea now needs to be removed from anything taught to kids.
1) It is well known that approx 90+% of child predators are known to their victims or their victim’s family. In my 20+ years of experience in this field, and working with many hundreds of survivors of child abuse, I believe 99% is a more accurate statistic.
So just taking into account this one fact, without all of the other reasons that make this concept redundant, if you are only preaching awareness of ‘strangers’ you are missing 90+% of the actual threats that our kids may face. Remember the person who is vastly more likely to abuse our kids is not a stranger, it is someone they know. That can be hard to hear but it is reality and I believe in being blunt wherever safety is concerned.
2) Parents generally violate the rule themselves constantly and the message quickly loses credibility. Kids often learn more by watching and modelling the behaviours of their parents than they do by being told what to do. So every time a parent instructs their child to; “Shake hands with Mr Robson” or “Tell the man your name” or “Don’t be rude Jill, say hello to the nice lady”, they are seeing the so called ‘rule’ violated time and time again. Eventually they will learn that they can’t talk to strangers unless the stranger is the postman, or serving at a gas station, or they’re handing out pamphlets, or they’re collecting for charity, or they are a real estate agent, or they are old, or they are young, or they are middle aged but ‘look nice’.
I hope you get my point. Quite simply, even Mum and Dad don’t understand or follow this ‘rule’ so there is no way we can expect our kids to.
3) The ‘stranger danger’ rule may actually reduce the child’s safety. How? Firstly it implies that only strangers are dangerous people who may hurt them, and as we know, that is not the case. If strangers are dangerous people, then that means we can trust people that we know, right? That is the embedded message after all. Unfortunately that just makes the process far easier for the predator that is known to the child, as it conveniently bestows a level of trust upon them so they don’t need to work as hard to gain it. Additionally, they have a level of access to the child that a ‘stranger’ would have to work hard to get so when you couple that access with an implied level of trust, and no way to recognise inappropriate behaviours, the child is highly vulnerable. Secondly, if your child is ever lost or in danger and needs help, they need to know how to talk to strangers to get help. This rule is actually a barrier to the very help and assistance they may need if they are in peril. The ability to ask a stranger for help is one of the greatest assets your child could have if they are in danger and if you have set them up to be afraid of all strangers then that asset will not be there for them when they most need it.
4) The message often promotes a false sense of security in parents and in kids. I have heard parents comment many times that they don’t need to read, see, hear, or experience our training on child safety because they already “know that stuff” and have already taught their children “not to talk to strangers”.
5) Predators are masterful manipulators. Very quickly they can go from being a ‘stranger’ to someone who feels known to the child through strategic dialogue and use of ‘luring’ as we discuss in detail in our book and our training. From the child’s perspective, even a complete stranger who engages them in friendly conversation quickly becomes someone they ‘know’.
6) Lastly, this message effectively eliminates one of the most important skills that your child can develop and will need throughout their entire life; the ability to evaluate the behaviour of other human beings, and learning to trust their intuitive feelings. It is this skill that will save them from more victimisation than almost any other, and it is the development of this skill that must be supported and encouraged at every point. The ‘stranger danger’ message very effectively works against this and could ultimately mean MORE vulnerability to victimisation for your child.
In short, the ‘stranger danger’ concept, when taught in isolation, is broken and does not work. Children need to be taught that it is not what a person looks like, or who they are that makes them dangerous, it is the person’s behaviours that they need to look out for. In future articles we will explore those behaviours.
Should awareness of strangers be a part of empowering our kids to be safe? 100% it should. It is an important piece of the puzzle, but it is not the whole puzzle.
Myth #2: “Teaching Kids Self Protection Will Make Them Afraid Of Everyone”
This is a common objection that I hear a lot from parents. The truth is the exact opposite, provided they are being taught the right things. Teaching them ‘stranger danger’ is very likely to make them fearful of everyone, which is another reason it is such a bad concept. Children who are fearful are easily exploited by predators, who will use threats (hurt the child, hurt parents, friends, pets) to gain and maintain control of the child. A child who will co-operate with a predator because they are afraid, is the perfect target.
Children, even at a very young age understand the concept of danger. They understand that if they touch the hot stove it is dangerous, they know if they play on the road it is dangerous, they stick a fork into a power socket it is dangerous. Why are they not constantly fearful of these things? Because they are taught simple prevention strategies which they can understand and which become automatic. Dangerous people are no exception. Most kids understand from a fairly young age through exposure to media or hearing stories that some people are dangerous and do bad things to other people.
Provided they are aware that it is only ‘some’ people who are dangerous and that most people are good people they will not be un-necessarily afraid.
This is why the entire focus of our book and of our (Protect Self Defence) programs for kids is on empowerment, not fear. Provided kids are taught the right information it will not result in them being fearful. Quite the contrary, it will result in them being more confident, less tentative, more aware, and empowered with the skills and knowledge to stay safe, which is the ultimate environment for kids to thrive. Once a child knows that they have the power to keep themselves safe, it has a positive ‘ripple effect’ into all other areas of their life, and their self esteem, self belief and self confidence soar.
Myth #3: Scaring Kids into Being Safe
While some parents are worried that teaching self protection to kids will make them afraid, other parents believe that the best way to keep kids safe is through instilling fear into them about the possible dangers they may face. As I have outlined above, this is one of the worst things to do, and actually increases their vulnerability to predators. Of all of the possible risks that our kids face, from car accidents, to drug abuse, the one that frightens parents the most is the deliberate, conscious danger posed by other people, so it is only natural that some parents pass on this fear to their kids when they do not have the correct information.
Remember, predators often TARGET kids who are afraid, tentative, lacking confidence and self esteem or who feel isolated and alone. It does of course also promote one of the exact things we want to help our kids avoid, one of the results of sexual abuse; fear and mistrust of people.
Many parents have become so obsessed with teaching (their version of) safety to their kids, they are costing them many of the new experiences and joys that life offers. Our lives can be greatly enriched by new experiences and new people coming into our lives, and the worry and unwarranted fears that many parents possess often restrict those valuable experiences that are required for our kids to grow. This is why our book and courses focuses so heavily on letting parents know what risk actually looks like, so they can then educate their children to stay safe from it, they can worry less and let their kids explore new experiences without constant and unwarranted fear. When fear is warranted, you (or your kids) will not have a choice, it will show up and get your attention, so there is no point feeling it all of the time when there is no actual reason.
In future articles I will outline some of the ‘luring strategies’ used by predators, as well as other information that we can use to update the old myths discussed in this article. Thanks for reading and for your commitment to keeping our kids safe!
Please share this to all parents you know, that is how we raise the awareness and safety of all of our kids. Thank you.