Kidpower North Carolina Center Director, Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., did an excellent interview on ABC News Now, Parenting with Ann Pleshette Murphy about how to teach children to be safe with strangers – and with people they know.
These key points from Kidpower are discussed during the show.
1. “Stranger danger” is a misleading concept. Children are emotionally safer if they understand that most people are good – this means that most strangers are good. The sad reality is that about 90% of abuse is perpetrated by people known and trusted by a family, school, or organization. Children need safety rules that they can follow that will work both for strangers and for people they know.
2. Kids need to know that they should not blindly obey an authority figure who is acting unsafely. Most two-year olds know how to say, “NO!” about anything they don’t like, but they often lose that ability as they get older. Because they lack life experience, young children have to learn that some things are not a choice – but we never want them to lose that ability to say “NO” if they are unhappy or uncomfortable. We can honor their feelings, encourage them to tell others about how they feel, and still set limits when we need to.
3. Rather than teach kids not to talk to strangers, we need to teach them how to talk to strangers. The safety rules are different when children are with their adults and when they are on their own. When children are with you, give them chances to practice talking to strangers, such as buying something from a clerk at the store. You can explain that, “It is okay to talk to this nice man even though you don’t know him, because we are together. If you are on your own, come over to me and check first.” If a child gets lost in a store, she’ll be safer if she knows how to ask for help, and whom to select (i.e. ask a person working at the counter; if you can’t find someone else, ask a woman with children).
4. The rules are different in emergencies. A child should always check first with an adult before changing their plan or going somewhere with someone, but we want kids to know that they can get emergency help from a paramedic, fire fighter, or other emergency help. There have been instances of kids lost in the woods who hid from rescue parties because all they had been taught said “don’t talk to strangers.” Children who might get lost on a hike need to know to stay where they are or in the nearest safe place, to sit down if they get tired, and to look for a search party – especially if this stranger is calling their name.
5. Open the door to conversations about safety concerns. Listening is an essential safety strategy for parents. Having parents and other caring adults who will listen to a kid’s concerns compassionately without lecturing or judging is so important. From time to time, ask your child, “Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you have not told me?” Be prepared to really listen to the answer. Even if it seems silly to you, you want children to trust that you will be respectful of their concerns. Also, a child with a big problem might start with a small disclosure to see how parents will take it. For example, a child might say, “I don’t like the way my cousin smells,” when there is a serious abuse problem going on.
6. Parents sometimes think over-protection keeps kids safer, but we believe that skills for independence are skills for safety. Experience is a great teacher, and the goal of Kidpower training is to give kids the skills they need to experience the level of independence and exploration that is right for their current ability and environment.
Often, parents have not been taught a lot about child safety beyond the myths of “stranger danger” and “good touch/bad touch”. Kidpower provides direct training to families through workshops, and also offers many free resources on our website as well as publications for sale. Here are links to our resource pages:
In addition to her work with Kidpower, Amy is the creator of Mojo Mom and of the valuable parenting book: Courageous Parents, Confident Kids: Letting Go So You Both Can Grow.