Children are smarter than we give them credit for. If you don't believe us, just consider how many times you've read Curious George or another favorite to lull your little moonlighter to sleep.
Chances are your "reading" is purely from memory these days.
So when it comes to discussing the topic of stranger danger, parents have to tread cautiously. You don't want a half-crazed child running rampant through the mall and kicking anyone who smiles at him.
There are safer and effective ways of discussing strangers to the little people. We'll show you how.
First off, cool the jets. The chances of your child being abducted are slim.
In fact, the odds of your child being abducted by someone you don't know are 1 in 300,000. About half of reported abductions involve kidnappings where family members take a child. They are quickly resolved.
So where did the idea of stranger danger come from?
In the 1960s, the gruesome crimes of child killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley began to turn attention to the possibility of kidnapping and murder. With televisions appearing in more households and communities increasing in population, this perceived danger increased.
Where children were once thrown outside with strict orders not to return until night, parents began warning them to stay within the yard or play inside.
Let's face it; we might think our kids are the smartest babies in the world, but until they find your discussion more interesting than their toes or the television, they're just that: babies.
That's why talks about strangers should be reserved for four-year-olds and up. By this age, children should have a vague understanding of the term "stranger" (although it's probably limited to a shadowy man in a hood) and will have heard scary stories from their classmates.
Those little buggers love to gossip.
So save the deeper discussions for this age. Before then, insist on safety rules, like holding hands in parking lots and staying close when playing in the yard.
More and more, experts are suggesting "stranger danger" may be memorable but gives off all the wrong vibes. Instead, try discussing "tricky people" with your child.
The idea is to empower, not to scare. Below are several common tips to approach the subject.
Not only does this get those newly-oiled cogs in your kid's head spinning, but it also is a great opportunity for you to learn what they know.
These questions are great for starters:
Who do you ask for help?
Invariably, a child's response will be either "you" or "adults." Discuss what type of adults they should seek help from. Then move the discussion to who adults ask for help. Like children, adults who really need help ask other adults for assistance.
If you're lost at the store, where do you go for help?
This is another excellent way of teaching children who is trustworthy and who is not. It also reinforces lessons they may have already learned and gives them valuable information about what to do in a scary situation.
Replace "the store" with different locations, and when you're out and about doing errands with your little princess tugging on your hand (and probably waving a fistful of chocolate at you), ask where she should go for help.
Other questions include, "What is a stranger?" and "Where do you meet strangers?"
Instead of framing every stranger as a potential predator, think gentler. For instance, compare a stranger to a wild dog. The dog could be nice or bad, but you can never tell which right away.
There are tons of fun and informative videos online and on the market. Not only will they keep your little one's attention, but they will share valuable information, as well.
Pattie Fitzgerald, the founder of Safely Ever After, suggests speaking to children about "tricky people" instead of stranger danger. It encourages kids to pay closer attention to a person's behavior instead of their looks.
Part of this program requires giving children the capability to trust their instincts, say "no" and avoid "helping" adults who seek the aid of children.
This concept works well with the predators of today, who usually insist they need a child's help to find a pet or accomplish a task. Instead, the concept presses, adults who really need help ask other adults, not children.
It's never too early for your child to learn the names of his or her private parts. Likewise, they should know exactly who is allowed to touch them without their permission.
A simple game of "yes" or "no" using hugs as an analogy can get this point across. Ask your child if you could hug them. Then point to a stranger and ask the same question.
Role-playing can be an excellent way for children to have fun learning about strangers. You can pretend to be a strange animal requesting your child help you find some food and then show him or her exactly what to do.
This encourages safe positioning, promotes the notion it's okay to tell an adult "no" and is a way to teach some basic hit-and-run moves.
Warning: you'll probably come out of this with a fair share of bruises.
In instances where you feel your child may be in more danger than normal (such as a vacation in a busy park), you can always give them some fun safety equipment.
One such piece is the fur ball buzzer. It's soft, it's fuzzy and your child can wear it around his or her wrist. Explain carefully when you hand this to them exactly when it should be used or prepare for an assault on your ears.
In fact, just show them upfront what it does. It will save your eardrums from exploding unnecessarily later.
Using these tidbits, you can have open discussions about stranger danger with your child in a way that will make them feel empowered.
John Walsh, the narrator of America's Most Wanted, had a child that was murdered. Even so, producer of the show Phil Lerman points out, you could find his children roaming far from their father at events.
It was because, according to Lerman, Walsh taught them to be smart. And, really, that's all we can do, too.
When they get older, well, that's a totally different story.
Check out our article about the five safety items you should give your college-bound kid. They might be bigger and smarter by then, but it's never a bad idea to give them the equipment that can keep them safe.
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