“Stranger Danger,” Ensign, Sept. 1993, 63–64
Generations of parents have told generations of children, “Don’t talk to strangers.” We coax, threaten, and use every conceivable scare tactic. Yet, after all our efforts, we still catch our children conversing openly with people they don’t know. “What am I doing wrong?” we ask. “Why can’t they follow instructions?”
The answer, plain and simple, is that children do not have the same concept of the word stranger that we do. I first discovered this when, as a police officer, I was giving a safety lecture to a group of third graders. When I asked what a stranger was, one eager eight-year-old said, “A big, mean man.” Another responded, “A bad guy that shoots people.” Still another told me, “Someone who steals kids.” Because of the ominous way adults talk, children simply cannot distinguish the difference between stranger and bad guy.
Obviously, we need to find a better way to teach our children about personal safety. Instead of alerting them to suspicious-looking people, we should teach them how to respond to unacceptable behavior and how to stay away from risky situations.
Avoid unsafe situations. Teach your children to be wary if someone they don’t know well approaches them in the following ways:
The gift. Offers may include anything from money, pets, and ghetto-blasters to rides on a motorcycle, a trip to Disneyland, or a photography session with a promise of instant stardom.
“Your mother has been in an accident …” Most children will not hesitate to get into a stranger’s car if they feel their parents’ welfare is at stake. Instruct your children not to go with someone they don’t know, but to run to the nearest place to get help.
Request for assistance. Children who could never be coaxed with candy might readily go with someone they don’t know if asked, for instance, to help get a puppy out from under a house. Remind your children to check with you before they agree to help anyone.
Badge of authority. Teach children that if a police officer wants to take them somewhere, he or she must get your permission first. A real officer will agree to that request. But if the “officer” threatens physical harm, orders children to get into a car, or offers to take them somewhere so they can phone their parents, the person is probably an impostor.
Practice home security. More than half of all assaults on women and children take place in a residence, so caution children to keep doors locked and to determine who is at the door before they open it. If the person is someone other than a neighbor or a friend, a parent should answer the door. If a parent is not at home, children should not open the door.
Pay attention to the family code word. As a family, choose a word to use in emergency situations. A name that is not gender-specific—“Aunt/Uncle Chris,” for example—works best for referring to a potential assailant. Emphasize to children that if Mom or Dad calls out to them using the code word, it means “Come quickly, and don’t ask questions!”
Don’t share your code word with anyone outside your family, or it won’t be effective.
Say no! Teach children that they can and should say no to anyone who tries to touch their body anywhere that a bathing suit would cover—and that they should then run away and tell someone as quickly as possible. It is equally vital that the person in whom the child confides believe the report and notify the police.
If you teach children to avoid problems, chances are they won’t ever have to worry about self-defense. However, some basic physical training will build their confidence.
Have your children practice saying “No!”—loudly and forcefully—and screaming in a convincing way. These two maneuvers alone will end most assault attempts.
Teach your children to move fast and to run away as soon as they sense the need to do so. Teach them to swing their legs, wiggle, and scream if they are held—all of which make it hard for an assailant to hold them—and then to run away as soon as they are free from a grip. Quiz them about where they would run once they are free so they can have safe places in mind. Stress the importance of telling an adult about the incident as soon as possible.
Children will probably have many concerns about kidnappers, so encourage them to express their fears and help them answer their “what if” questions. Don’t be concerned that you are not a professional teacher or a martial arts expert. You have the most important credentials for teaching your children about safety—love and a desire to prepare them to meet challenges without fear and apprehension.—Tana Johnson, South Jordan, Utah