How to teach kids about “tricky people”

You’ve heard of “stranger danger”, but it’s far more important to teach your children about “tricky people”, explains Yvonne Walus.

If you’ve never heard the term “tricky people” applied to parenting, you’re not alone. We’re far more used to hearing "stranger danger". But even though statistically children are far more likely to suffer harm from people who are known to them, we still teach our kids not to talk to strangers. Except, wait, who is a stranger? Are all strangers equally dangerous? I remember having a very confusing conversation with my children on this topic a few years ago:

Me: "Honey, you must stay away from people you don't know. Don't talk to strangers even if they talk to you first. But if you get lost, find a policeman—"

Daughter: "Or a policewoman?"

Me: "Or a policewoman. You can talk to the police. And to security guards. And to firefighters. If you feel anxious, look for somebody in a uniform. If it's a shop, speak to the person who works there — they will probably also wear some sort of uniform. But don't go anywhere with them. Don't leave the shop."

Daughter: "What if a policeman tells me to leave the shop."

It's tricky isn't it, teaching our children whom they can trust? Perhaps that's why Pattie Fitzgerald, of Safety Ever After, refers to "tricky people". "Tricky people" are those your child finds unsettling and should avoid. "Stop telling your kids not to talk to strangers," Pattie advises. "They might need to talk to a stranger one day. Instead, teach them which sorts of strangers are safe." She says an example of somebody who's safe is a mother with kids. If your child gets separated from you at the mall or in a park, teach them to approach the first woman with kids they see. So is a dad with children also a "safe stranger"? While striving to be politically correct and hoping not to offend all the fantastic dads out there, Pattie stands by women with children as her first choice, although she's also a firm believer in teaching children to trust their gut instinct.

Tricky people are adults who ask children for help (as in looking for a puppy), because safe grownups go to other grownups if they need assistance

That's why the term "tricky people" is so fitting: If the child thinks there may be something not quite right with someone, be it a stranger, a neighbour, or a family friend, this person is "tricky". Tricky people are adults who ask children for help (as in looking for a puppy), because safe grownups go to other grownups if they need assistance. Tricky people want the child to keep a secret from their parents, or encourage them to do something without asking permission. Tricky people could, sadly, even be other children who offer them a toy in exchange for inappropriate touching. Here's another good reason not to get hung up on the "stranger" concept. If a stranger wanted to approach a child, the very first thing he (or she) would do is introduce themselves: "Hi, I'm Chris. See, I'm not a stranger anymore, you know my name." Because "tricky people" may infiltrate your home, observe how your child behaves around other adults, particularly those who seem to be paying a lot of attention to children in general, or to your child in particular. Most of the time, they will be a lovely "safe adult" who simply likes children or is trying to do you a favour. Tune in to your child, read their body language and their emotions. If they think the adult is weird in a creepy way, it'll be obvious. If they think he or she is fun to be with, all's good.

Teach your child these four magic words: No, Go, Yell, Tell. They empower children to shout "No!" if approached by a tricky person, or if asked to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable. The next three words remind the child to run away quickly, to yell for help, and to tell a safe grownup what happened. Use common sense, set boundaries, monitor your child's reactions, listen to any "uh-oh feelings". Pay attention to who is paying attention to your child....And remember, most of the time, it's all harmless.

Parents say

  • Teach your kids not to do anything, or go anywhere, without permission.
  • Make sure your children know that if anyone asks them to keep a secret and threatens to hurt them if they tell, they need to tell.
  • Teach them to trust their instincts. No child should be forced to kiss or hug a relative if they don't want to.
  • Your child should never go anywhere with someone unless they know the family password.

What to teach your child

  • I am the boss of my body.
  • Body areas covered by swimming togs are private.
  • I must check with my "safe grownup" before going anywhere or accepting a gift.
  • If someone makes me feel uncomfortable, it's okay to say no to them, to run away, or to scream. I don't have to be polite to tricky people.
  • Nobody should ask me to keep a secret, especially if the secret makes me unhappy.
  • If I get lost in a public place, I can freeze and yell for help to let as many people as possible know about my problem. I can also approach a family with kids.
  • I will always pay attention to the feeling in my tummy or the special voice that tells me someone might be a "tricky person".
Yvonne Walus is an education specialist, senior consultant to Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, and a mother of two children.
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