Should we be telling our kids not to talk to strangers?

A general view among child safety advocates is that children should be discouraged from talking with strangers. This message is regularly announced (and generally unopposed) in today’s culture with ‘stranger danger’ messages becoming part of modern parlance.

In other words, I see child safety advocates giving parents these warnings more so than ever, telling parents and children that they should not talk with or engage with people they don’t know. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology in their advisory report on missing children ‘Parents and teachers must impress upon children the dangers of talking to strangers’.

But is this message exacerbating the highly-strung parent population?

When taking a flight, during the safety briefing it is common to hear...”in the unlikely event of an emergency”, which is code for ‘this event is very unlikely to happen, but just in case’...

I speculate that when we describe strangers as dangerous we conflate the largely harmless masses with the very few people who pose a risk to our children.

It concerns me that a paranoid view of parenting is creeping into our parenting practise. This perspective seems to be that if there is any risk at all, however small or remote in possibility, we must respond to mitigating that risk or find ourselves questioning how good a parent we are.

Take stranger danger for example. The chances that a stranger will kidnap or take a child are small. In fact, they are very small – in the US, according to the FBI, 99.8% of children who are reported missing eventually return into their parents’ arms, usually unharmed, after having not turned up on time, running away or getting themselves lost. In other words, the number of children who get taken by a stranger is minimal. For sure, we should be telling children not to go with someone they don’t know, and we should tell them to never get into a car with someone they don’t know. But should we tell them to never talk to persons they don’t know?

Some years back, a New York mum by the name of Lenore Skenazy was portrayed as ‘the worst mum in America’. She became infamous for allowing her then nine-year old son to ride on the subway, alone and was lampooned as being irresponsible for daring to allow her child travel by himself. But, Lenore stated she was merely attempting to help her child engage in a limited-risk situation to improve his resilience skills.

In their book, The Mollycoddling of the American Mind, Luckianoff and Haidt say that risk avoidant parenting is now rampant. The results, they say, are that children are becoming part of a victimhood culture in which they don’t learn how to respond by-and-for themselves and in which they will often seek out someone else to intervene on their behalf. Further, in prosperous countries, children are safer today than at any other point in history but for historical reasons (including the large crime waves of the 60s and the increased available information and reporting in the 90s through digital technology), fear of abduction is very high among parents, with many believing children should never be left unsupervised. With this repeated view impressed upon children that the world is a dangerous place which cannot be faced alone, it is no surprise many children believe this.

By not equipping children with the necessary practise to discriminate between people through engaging with them, we do not give them practise they need to make decisions about whether they can trust someone. Kids need lots of opportunities to work out who can be trusted - by regularly engaging with people. If we protect them from every single encounter with an unknown adult, they won’t get the chance to use their discriminating skills. They won’t get the opportunity to come to us and say, “She was a funny woman; there was something a bit odd about her”. And, if we paint everyone as potentially odd, we set our children up as fragile.

I’m sure that the aim of the ‘world-is-a-dangerous-place’ child advocates is well meaning. So, I’m in no way impugning their motivation. That said, the media coverage of the ‘scary-world’ hypothesis gets far more airplay than could be considered balanced. What I do think is that by magnifying the risks and not balancing the arguments for and against engaging with strangers, we send the wrong message to children.

So, with all of this in mind, help your children talk with strangers; they are not all bad.

Michael Hawton is founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents. You can find more information, including his books and self-paced online parenting courses at https://www.parentshop.com.au/parent-courses/
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