How “Stranger Danger” Hurts Kids

“Stranger Safety” Empowers Kids With Knowledge and Skills

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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We believe that most people are good -- and that means most strangers are good.

We believe that most people are good — and that means most strangers are good.

After a “Stranger Danger” lesson in her kindergarten class, a little girl sat down with her crayons and a big piece of paper. On one side of her drawing, there was a small child being grabbed by a big man, and on the other side, there were two stick-figures waving their arms with tears pouring down their faces. With the help of a classroom aide, this child carefully printed her story, “The man took the girl. The mommy and daddy are sad because they will never see their girl again.”

It does not make kids safer to believe that the world is full of evil people they don’t know called “strangers.” This message just makes them scared without preparing them to be out in the world on their own. In fact, sometimes kids have died because they did not know that they could get help from strangers in an emergency.

Each year in the US, tens of thousands of abduction attempts by strangers are reported, and about 300-400 children a year are kidnapped and killed. And far, far, far more common are cases where children are harmed by people they know.

Kids DO need to know how to stay safe with people when they are on their own away from their adults even for a minute – and their parents and teachers DO need to know what actions to take, what words to say after something bad has happened, and how to teach their kids in ways that empower them rather than traumatize them.

For 25 years, Kidpower has been teaching children and their adults about “Stranger Safety” instead of “Stranger Danger,” and many other safety programs have picked up this message.

Unfortunately, most official and media responses to cases involving strangers still promote the “Stranger Danger” message. Recently, a young girl in a nearby community was approached by a man when she was playing on the monkey bars after school. She left the school yard to go with him to get an ice cream cone, and he attacked her. Thankfully, she got away.

The school district sent a letter to parents saying that their teachers would be talking with the kids about a Stranger Danger flyer provided by the National Crime Prevention Council and advising the parents to do the same. While much of the advice in the flyer is useful, the title is very frightening as are the recommendations to explain to kids that, “A man is in the area who is trying to hurt kids. He tried to take a little girl away from her family.”

Here is what Kidpower recommends telling children about being safe with strangers. Remember that kids learn better when their adults are calm – and when they are having fun instead of feeling worried.

1. A stranger is just someone you don’t know well. Lots of people are strangers to you – and you are a stranger to them. Let’s think of people you know well and of people who are familiar but are still strangers, such as the mail delivery person, many people at school, and people living in our neighborhood.

2.Most people are good, and this means that most strangers are good.In fact, as we get older, most of the people who are most important to us used to be strangers. A few people sometimes do unsafe things – just like some animals sometimes do unsafe things. You don’t need to worry about this – you just need to know how to follow your safety rules.

3. The rules are different when you are with your adults or when you are on your own.Let’s think of examples of when you are on your own for a few minutes, even if your adult is close by.

4. When you are on your own, move away and check first if a stranger tries to approach you.Check First before letting a stranger get close to you, talk with you, get you to go somewhere, or give you anything, even your own things. Who would you Check First with at home? What about at school? What about after school? If you don’t have an adult with you to Check First with, Think First about where you are, how this stranger is behaving, and who else is around who might help you.

5. Check First with your adults before you change your plan about going anywhere with anyone, even with people you know. Check First or Think First before opening your door to someone you are not expecting.

Make a list with children about people they can go with without checking first but remind them that you still want to know if the plans change about where they are going and what they are doing. The younger the child is, the shorter this list should be. Make sure that kids know how to contact you, including your mobile phone number.

6. The rules are different in emergencies. Let’s make sure you have a safety plan for how to get help, including from strangers, everywhere you go.

And now, Let’s PRACTICE! Once kids understand what the rules are, make sure that they have the skills to follow these rules. Use Kidpower’s Positive Practice Method to coach kids in rehearsing how to Stay Aware, Move Away, Check First, Set Boundaries, and Get Help from busy adults using relevant examples. Keep reinforcing these skills in daily life until they become habits.

As adults, when we learn about an abduction attempt or kidnapping, feelings of terror, horror, and grief are normal. Burdening children with our fears by forcing them to give their toys away at a memorial for a missing child or letting them hear too many details about an assault is likely to traumatize them. Instead, we can review the skills they need to know, make sure that they are well-supervised by trustworthy people, and give age-appropriate explanations if they have heard about something bad happening. For a younger child, you can say in a reassuring way, “ A grownup is bothering kids by not following the safety rules. If there is anything you are worried about, let me know. I am so glad that you know how to Move Away and Check First!”

When children have the opportunity for successful practice of safety skills presented in an upbeat way, they almost always become less worried, more confident, more competent, and better prepared to take charge of their safety. When they are ready, our goal must be to encourage our children to be out and about in the world without us, having the joy of exploring new places and meeting new people on their own.

If you are not sure HOW to practice, take a look at the resources below. If you can’t find what you need to know, we’ll be happy to help.

Additional Resources

Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After A Tragedy

Stranger Safety Resource Page

Kidpower Safety Tips for Parents and Caregivers

Safety for Kids on Their Way to School

Strangers at School

A Sex Offender Is Living in Our Neighborhood! HELP!



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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