Kidpower teaches Stranger Safety – NOT ‘stranger danger’ – to empower adults and protect kids. We have been using this approach since 1989 and are glad to see more safety programs following our lead. Sadly, the “Stranger Danger” message is still too common.
Teaching kids that the world is full of evil people they don’t know called “strangers” does not make them safer. It just makes them scared. In fact, if kids do not know they can get help from strangers in an emergency, they can be even more vulnerable to harm. Some have died in situations where strangers could have helped.
Kids do need to learn skills to stay safe with people. And, adults do need strategies to teach stranger safety skills in ways that empower kids without scaring them. Kidpower recommends that adults teach teach kids that:
1. A stranger is just someone you do not know well.
In a calm, upbeat voice, say, “Lots of people are strangers to you, and you are a stranger to them. Let’s name people you know well… Let’s think of people who are familiar but are still strangers, like the mail carrier, many people at school, and many of our neighbors…” Strangers are all ages, all abilities, all genders, all life situations.
2. Most people are good, and this means that most strangers are good.
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 do not need to worry about this – you just need to know how to follow your safety rules.
3. The rules are different when you are together with your adults or when you are on your own.
Calmly say, “Let’s think of examples of when you are on your own for a few minutes, even if your adult is close by.” Adapt for the ages and abilities of your children. ‘Close by’ for a 4-year-old is a bit closer than ‘close by’ for a 10-year-old. The concept is the same, though.
Make it a habit to point out – calmly – the many times you and they talk with strangers when you are together, such as when you talk with a cashier in a store or when you talk to the doctors, nurses, and receptionists in a clinic. These people are still strangers – and, your and your child are together.
4. Knowing how to Move Away and Check First helps us be safe and have more fun
Teach kids how to Move Away and Check First if they are not sure something is safe. Even in early childhood, there are opportunities every day to build this skill!
For example, you can practice Moving Away and Checking First before picking up an interesting bug they have never seen before, before petting a dog or cat they do not know, or before eating something they found. Moving Away and Checking First helps us prevent problems – like a bug sting or an upset stomach! – and so we can have more fun.
Move Away and Check First are also Stranger Safety skills. In the same matter-of-fact way you teach and reinforce the skills in other everyday situations when kids are on their own – which might be just a few paces away for young children – teach and practice how to Move Away and Check First:
- before a stranger comes close to you
- before talking with a stranger
- before taking anything from a stranger, even your own things
- before going with a stranger
Together with your child, have fun naming all the people they could Check First with in different places. Who could they Check First with at home? at school? on a playdate? playing in the neighborhood? 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. The safety rule is to Check First with your adults before you change your plan about going anywhere with anyone, even with people you know.
Make a list with children about people they can go with without checking first. Keeping the list short will make it easier at any age. The younger the child is, the shorter the list should be. If they can’t remember whether someone is on the list, that’s okay – they can always just Move Away and Check First!
Remind kids that the safety rule is also to Check First before changing the plan about where they are going and what they are doing. Even if someone is on the list of people they can go with without checking first, you still want to know before they change the plan.
For example, if Cousin Avery is one of the people on the list who can pick them up and bring them home after school, they can go! If Cousin Avery says, “Let’s go to my friend’s house before we go home,” that is an example of changing the plan – so, they Check First. Practice all the ways your child can contact you, including memorizing your mobile number and any other numbers they need to know.
We also Check First or Think First before opening the door. Review your safety rules for Answering the Door and Staying Home Alone.
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!
Make it an everyday habit to reinforce the Safety Rules with your words and actions. This helps kids build an understanding of what the safety rules are. Practice the skills so they learn how to follow the safety 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 making them watch a video of an abduction attempt, 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 your Stranger Safety skills
- make sure kids are well-supervised – see Being Worthy of Trust To Keep Kids Safe From Abuse, Bullying, And Other Harm
- give age-appropriate explanations if they have heard about something bad happening – see Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy
- reassure kids calmly and confidently, such as by saying, “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!”
- take care of our own feelings of fear and worry by talking with other adults we trust
When children have the opportunity for successful practice of safety skills presented in an upbeat way, they almost always become less worried, more confident, 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, download our 30 Skills Coaching Handbook. It includes many coaching examples that you can adapt based on the age and life situation of the children in your life.
Published: April 15, 2014 | Last Updated: October 3, 2023