If you have told your child, "Don't talk to strangers," have you wondered how your child actually hears this? When we say it, we have exceptions, that as adults, we can qualify. Our children cannot. So when we go places, and...talk to strangers, it sends our kids a mixed message.
For example, how often have you gone to the park, zoo, grocery store, mall, etc. and struck up a conversation with a complete stranger? If you are like me, this probably happens often. So if you are a "stranger danger" parent, your child has probably asked who the person you are speaking to is, because she assumes you know him. And when she finds out you don't, she is left wondering about your "stranger danger" instructions.
When we tell our children not to talk to strangers, we are telling them that strangers are bad, when in fact, the majority of people who come across their paths are not bad at all. As a matter of fact, many of them are other parents. I saw a story where a lost boy scout would not respond to men calling out his name because they were strangers, and he was taught not to talk to them. Kids are literal...we need to remember that.
There IS an alternative to stranger danger. But first, I need to address something else. There are two basic types of parents. There are those who give their children some freedom to roam, and those who hover over every single move. Of course we can go to either extreme and find parents who are too lenient, as well as parents who are way too protective and never let their children leave the house. But for simplicity's sake, I'm talking about parents who are "out and about" with their kids. There is a danger to allowing kids too much freedom too early. We need to provide freedom in baby steps, and allow kids to earn more freedom as they show they are treating their freedom respectively. But there is also a danger in hovering over children and never letting them out of our sight. Let me illustrate.
My daughter walks to her friend's house. It is about 4 houses down, across the street. For a while, I watch her, or, she can walk with her friend. For the most part, the kids in our neighborhood use the buddy system. As she earns more freedom, she is allowed to walk to her friend's unaccompanied and unwatched, but she will text me when she arrives, to let me know that her friend is there and that she can play. Now, there is no doubt that from our house to her friend's house, she has a certain level of anxiety. She knows the danger; she knows she is out there alone and can be approached by a car with people set out to do her harm. Her instinct is alerted and she is on guard to run the second those hairs stand up on the back of her neck.
On the other hand, you have the parent that will walk her child, hand in hand, to the neighbor's house. Every. Single. Time. Seems safe, right? I mean, isn't that what parents are supposed to do? Protect their child? When we don't let our child out of our sight, we are telling him that we don't trust him. You can play the, "It's not that I don't trust you, it's that I don't trust the crazy people out there..." but that is YOUR anxiety. What are you going to do to prevent someone from entering your child's room at night and taking him out of his bed?! The fact is, stranger abductions are rare. And when you don't let your child out of your sight, you not only don't allow him to foster his own level of intuition, you teach him he doesn't need it because Mommy is with him and will take care of him. And what happens in that rare instance when you are not with him? He is in more danger than you can imagine, because he has learned not to be alert, not to be leery of strangers (because you talk to them yourself), and he is at greater risk than the child who has learned to trust her intuition when something just doesn't feel right.
One afternoon, my daughter was in the driveway drawing with chalk. She saw a "strange man" walking on the sidewalk, so she promptly came into the house and closed the garage door until he passed. So I trust her instinct. She has also proven that she is alert. Even though she was looking down and drawing, she knew the man was approaching.
My son and I met one of his Sunday School teachers at the same time. I got a weird feeling about him. Later, to my surprise, my son confirmed to me that he had the same feeling. He is the one who brought it up, and I couldn't believe that both of us had the same gut feeling.
We need to trust our own gut instincts and foster that in our children. The truth of the matter is, as we allow our teens more freedom, they MUST be able to make quick, gut decisions about people that they meet every day. And if we don't teach them when they are young, it is really hard to learn later on. Start with your kids today, and teach them to be independent and to listen to their gut instincts!