By Linda Hassan Anderson, Vice President, Education
“Don’t talk to strangers!” As children, most of us heard this “well intended” parental advice. It was as common as “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” This is what parents say, right?
And yet, the world has changed so significantly that how “stranger” is defined may be different, and more importantly, the life skills children need to be safe could benefit from an update. “Don’t talk to strangers” was a one-size-fits-all solution that may not serve children well today. Young children come in contact with many more adults and situations based on the changing demographics and lifestyles of families.
How many great news articles have been written about children who knew what to do in an emergency and how their quick and appropriate actions saved lives? Let’s take a look at what we can say to our children that will prepare them by knowing what to do when encountering a stranger who may pose a potential threat.
Role playing scenarios help children to think about their choices in advance of a problem. Practicing for potential emergencies is fun for children and it builds their confidence in their ability to make the good choices. This is why we have fire drills in preschools – each child knows exactly what to do when they hear the fire alarm. Their response becomes second nature – they are fully prepared for this emergency.
This same concept can be useful in relationship to what to do when approached by a stranger. Older children may enjoy generating their own best response. For younger children, providing an A or B choice works well. “What would you do if” questions are fun and thought provoking. Listen to the child’s responses and provide feedback and guidance. Positively reinforce any part of the answer that is correct and extend the scenario with discussions of why or why not.
Here are a few examples:
A stranger asks you to help them find something (their keys, a puppy, etc.) What would you do?
- A. Immediately walk or run to a trusted adult and tell what the stranger said
- B. Help the stranger find his/her lost item
- Rule: Do not assist a stranger that asks for help looking for something
- Why: Adults should ask other adults for help
You get lost in the grocery store and can’t find me. What would you do?
- A. Cry and hope that someone will ask you what is wrong
- B. Find a store employee (TIP: someone with a store uniform or name tag; sometimes in the aisles or at the checkout counters) and ask for help finding me (TIP: give my first and last name)
- Rule: Ask a store employee for assistance when you are lost
- Why: Store employees are trained to assist children and adults; I will also be asking a store employee to help me to find you
(TIPS are prompts to help children think about how to get assistance. Add these to make the situation as real as possible for your child.)
A visitor in your classroom speaks to you. What would you do?
- A. Say “Hello”
- B. Say “My mother said don’t talk to strangers”
- Rule: If the teacher introduces a visitor in class it is okay to speak to them
- Why: You can say hello in class to be polite to visitors. You can also decide whether to continue to talk with them based on how comfortable you are feeling.
Sometimes strangers pose little or no threat to our children. When we help children know what to do, they are better prepared to respond in any situation including those that may be potentially harmful.