It took a vivid nightmare to spark a conversation about talking to strangers between Doreen Auslitz and her seven-year-old son Tyler. “In the dream, he and his friend were at the park and a stranger was trying to get them. It was so real to him, he was crying,” says the Barrie, Ont., mother of two. The next day, Auslitz used the dream as a springboard for a candid chat about stranger safety.
“We don’t teach stranger danger anymore, because research has come out showing that most children are harmed by someone familiar to them or known to them,” says Trish Derby, executive director for Child Find Ontario.
“When I talk to kids, I do mention the word stranger, and they identify them as “someone we don’t know and that we don’t go with,” says Derby. But she adds children should be taught that the basic safety rules—such as saying “no” to anyone who touches them inappropriately, and never accepting a ride or a gift from someone that makes them feel uncomfortable—apply to anyone they encounter. “Even if it’s the nice lady from across the street.”
However, not everyone your child doesn’t know is the bad guy. “At some point in time, children may need a stranger’s help and they have to be taught which adults they can trust in an emergency situation,” says Suzanne Robillard, communications/media program coordinator for the Canada Safety Council in Ottawa.
Robillard suggests parents tell their children to look for police officers, moms pushing strollers, store employees and trusted neighbours if they are lost or need help.
When faced with a dangerous situation, children need to know how to act quickly and get away from the area as fast as possible. One of the ways to help your kids learn how to do this is through authoritative parenting. “It involves listening to your children’s feelings consistently throughout their lives,” explains Dr. Geoffrey Carr, a Vancouver-based psychologist. “It contrasts with telling them what to do as a dominant mode of interaction, but still includes setting limits and offering guidance.”
And why does this work? “Children who have been parented in an authoritative way are more likely to trust their own feelings and do what feels right, even in the face of a stranger telling them to do something else,” says Carr. In short, it lets them go with their gut and react when something seems weird.
Acting out various “what if” scenarios, such as getting lost in a mall, being approached in a park or being offered a ride, is a good way to get kids to practice their safety skills and “will give them confidence to react in real-life situations,” advises Robillard.
Another way to make your child feel safer is to create a simple, secret password with them that only trusted family members and friends know. Give each child a separate word and teach your children not to go with anyone unless that person can give the password.
Kids should also always let you know where they are. On your end, make sure other adults, such as teachers, hockey coaches or bus drivers, are aware of situations when another person will be filling in for you so they know it is all right for your child to leave with the specified adult.
Though child abductions are rare (of the 60,461 missing kids on the RCMP’s 2006 Canadian Missing Children Report, 46 of the 372 kidnappings were by someone other than the parent or guardian), Doreen Auslitz says she’ll continue keeping close tabs on Tyler. But she’s disheartened that he isn’t free to play without safeguards. Trish Derby of Child Find is more fatalistic. “This is life. If you start a dialogue about streetproofing or personal safety when they’re six years old, hopefully, when they’re 16, they’ll continue to make smart choices.”
Anna Sharratt, a Toronto writer and editor, is no stranger to her three-month-old nephew, Thomas.
Once Upon A Dragon: Stranger Safety for Kids (and Dragons), by Jean Pendziwol (Kids Can)
A little girl and her friend find themselves in a fairy tale book where she must teach the dragon to practice safe behaviour when around strangers.
The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers, by Stan Berenstain (Random House)
Sister Bear thinks all strangers are scary until Mama Bear brings some common sense to the problem.
The Safe Side: Stranger Safety (Safe Side)
Safe Side Superchick educates kids about how to avoid dangerous situations with people they “don’t know” and those they “kinda know” and how to identify “safe side adults,” in this DVD from John Walsh (host of America’s Most Wanted) and Julie Clark (creator of Baby Einstein).