Danger isn’t in Strangers, but in Bad Advice to Kids

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By Ken Niezgoda,
Founder of Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention

Stranger Danger. All parents know the phrase. Many children’s books still include the warning “Don’t talk to strangers”. It almost seems a parental sacrilege to say anything to the contrary.  So how is this a problem? By making a child afraid of all strangers, we use fear as a tool. We offer a problem, not a solution. Kids don’t need to be made afraid, they need practical advice.

What happens if your child gets lost in the mall, gets off the bus in a strange neighborhood, or wanders off accidentally during a field trip? Children need to find a way back to you, but now they can’t ask for help. Remember, you’ve taught them to never talk with strangers.

Find a police officer? Not easy to do. Also, a child can’t tell a police officer from a security guard. Security guards are not always background checked, and predators often use positions of authority to gain the trust of a child.

Find a clerk at the store? Great idea if the child is near a store, but it doesn’t work in a park or neighborhood.

The reality is:

• In nearly 90 percent of sexual assault cases, the victim knows the predator; that is, the predator is not a stranger.

• There are less than 100 stranger abductions annually each year in the U.S. In contrast, several hundred people are struck by lightning.

• Nearly all stranger abductions and sexual abuse crimes are committed by men. (Ironically, if a woman harms a child, it is almost always her own child.)

• Almost all people are good (something I always tell children when I teach a violence prevention class).

What do you tell your child? Tell the child to ask a woman for help. Statistically there is virtually no chance the woman would harm your child. Also, predators select their victims. If we empower our children to select a woman and ask for help, rather than wait for someone to select them, they will be safer.

Some additional pro-active advice for children:

• Stay at or near the place where they were last seen by their responsible adult. That is where the search for them will typically begin.

• If they can’t stay put, go to where people are – there is safety in numbers.

• Stay away from car traffic – it’s particularly dangerous to a worried, distracted child.

• Don’t hide.

• Know the important information: Parents first and last names, important phone numbers (home, maybe parents’ work and cell if the child can remember it), and your home address. Practice writing and repeating this information. It can help your child get home.

Responsible law enforcement agencies and schools no longer teach “Stranger Danger”, but unfortunately the concept is still engrained in our culture. Practical advice, not worries and fear, will help your child stay safe.

About the author: Ken Niezgoda is a Portland-area violence prevention instructor and Tae Kwon Do black belt. He is also a professional instructional designer and has created a violence and sexual assault prevention curriculum for young women that any school or non-profit organization can download and use free of charge from: http://tkd.pacificpaper.us/.