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STRANGER DANGER II

Something I saw on the news a while back made me think about how many parents today feel they have to protect their children.

An 11-year-old boy scout found after being missing for four days said, “I didn’t want anybody to steal me.” His mother, visibly moved by his safe return, said that her son had listened to his parents who told him

1) if he was ever lost hiking he should stay on the trail and

2) he should never talk to strangers.

The boy said he got off the trail and hid when he heard people and horses that apparently were part of a search party trying to rescue him. He avoided strangers per his parents’ instructions but, lost in the wilderness without food or protective clothing, this advice could have resulted in his death.

All advice given by a person of authority, whether a physician or a parent, should follow the dictum of Hippocrates, “Do no harm.” I worry that the emphasis parents put on stranger danger and the way they warn their children may be harmful to children and to society as a whole.

I know there are malevolent people in this world who prey on children. But in the list of what can potentially harm a child, being stolen must be at the very bottom. What are the more prevalent dangers parents should worry about? The automobile, swimming pools, access to guns, lack of immunizations, riding a bike without a helmet all come to mind. The saddest statistic of all? If a child is abused or abducted it is likely that the perpetrator is not a stranger but rather a person known to the child, often a trusted person.

The parents of the lost boy scout, like most parents today, were no doubt truly concerned about stranger danger. We are all the products of our culture and our times. Our myths and fairy tales tell of lost children and wicked abductors. We identify with the parents of an abducted child and can imagine their pain. And the media shows us every Amber Alert and each horror tale of stranger abduction over and over again until we feel that all children are in danger all the time.

But the reality is that the numbers of children abducted or murdered by strangers remain constant. About 200 to 300 children are abducted and about 50 children are murdered by a stranger each year. Each one of these is an utterly horrific tragedy but there are over 70 million children under 18 in the US. Do the math.

I am convinced it is counterproductive to raise scared and anti-social kids. So I am repeating Dr. Heins’ list of what parents should do to keep their children safe without making them unduly fearful.

o Make your children appropriately AWARE OF REALISTIC DANGERS at the same time you instill in your kids a SENSE OF PERSONAL CONFIDENCE and the SKILLS to interact with people. After all most people are helpful to children, not dangerous. The goal is children who are WARY and EMPOWERED, not scared!

o Teach your children this very specific safety rule: Never go ANYWHERE WITH ANYBODY unless you ask the grown-up in charge first. “Don’t go with a stranger!” does not provide the correct emphasis. Maybe your child did just that at the dentist last week, and was praised for following the hygienist. The typical stranger rule gives the child license to go with ANYBODY the child recognizes.

o Help your children understand that they could be harmed by CERTAIN STRANGERS who do CERTAIN THINGS: Teach your children to SCREAM / RUN AWAY / TELL A TRUSTED ADULT if ANYONE they don’t recognize does any of the following:

1. TRIES TO GET YOU IN A CAR, A HOUSE, OR ANYWHERE THERE ARE NO OTHER PEOPLE.

2. TELLS YOU NOT TO TELL ANYONE ABOUT IT.

3. OFFERS YOU CANDY OR PRESENTS.

4. ASKS YOU TO HELP FIND A LOST PUPPY.

5. HANGS AROUND AND TRIES TO DO THESE THINGS WITH OTHER KIDS.

o Teach your children that, if they see anyone doing any of the above dangerous things to another child, they should scream and run to tell a trusted adult.

o Explain who trusted adults are because you will not always be around. Ask the child to make a list of adults he or she can and should trust.

o ROLE PLAY with your children about what to do in potentially dangerous situations. What if somebody in a car asks directions? Stay far away from the car and shout the answer or say you don’t know. What if a stranger or someone you don’t know very well asks you to help look for his lost puppy? Refuse and quickly walk away. What if he follows you? Scream and find a trusted adult.

o Teach your children the street rule: WALK IN PAIRS or a GROUP. And the person rule: Act POWERFUL. Don’t look AFRAID / WORRIED / FEARFUL.

o Explain to your children that MOST PEOPLE ARE GOOD AND DO NOT HURT CHILDREN. Let them see you interact with “good” strangers in a friendly way.

We must all watch each other’s children in our neighborhood, not just ne on the look out for strangers. Is anyone being bullied? Is anyone crying? Does any child seem troubled?

The issue is not strangers. After all, every new neighbor is a stranger at first. The issue is to teach children which strangers might harm them. The goal is to raise children who feel empowered by our teachings to recognize DANGER and get help.

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