I told him Grandpa would be picking him up from school that day. He excitedly yelled “Yeah!” For some reason, this conversation prompted the following:
“Hey Titus, why is it safe for you to ride home with granddaddy?”
“Because, he’s my granddaddy!”
“That’s right. Mommy knows him and knows that he is safe for you to ride home with. What about Elijah’s mommy? Is she safe to ride home with her?”
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“Yes, she is safe. Elijah’s mommy is my friend, and sometimes when I give your teacher permission, you can ride home with his mommy. What about Jake’s mommy?”
“Yes. She is safe. Because you know her!”
“Yes, I know Jake’s mommy and she is probably safe, but Mommy doesn’t know her well enough for you to ride home with her.”
My son was then confused. He assumed I knew her because we have made small talk waiting to pick kids up from school. We do not actually know her.
The second conversation went like this:
Me: No, buddy because we don’t know who lives there now.
Titus: Well… we can go meet them.
Me: Do you think going to meet them is enough to know if they are safe?
Titus: Yes! They are in a house. And if we meet them then we will know them, and they will be safe.
I immediately panicked. He is four, he goes to school three mornings a week without me, and I haven’t taught him about safety with or around strangers!
Once my initial “OH NO” moment wore off, I started researching the topic, which quickly became overwhelming. I wanted to grab my son in my arms and never let go. It just felt too big, too messy, too scary to teach him about. Then I put on my big girl pants and realized that holding him forever is not an option. I need to equip him and empower him to be safe. Here are some tips for approaching this topic with your kids:
1) Talk about Strangers
Teach your kids the word “stranger,” and help them understand who is a stranger. The days of the phrase “stranger danger” are long gone because experts believe that phrase increases a child’s anxiety. Instead, experts are encouraging parents to talk about stranger safety – teaching kids that strangers are anyone that they don’t know well. It brought me a lot of comfort when I thought about teaching my kids that if THEY don’t know the person then they are a stranger, even if mommy or daddy knows the person well. No matter how many times you have seen them talk to Mommy or Daddy, if you don’t know them well then they are a stranger. They are probably safe, but we still don’t go with them alone anywhere. We also need to teach our kids that they never take anything from a stranger. If they need to give something to mommy and daddy then they can find us. That is not our kid’s job.
2) HAVE RULES or ACTION Steps
These rules are adapted from the site Kid Power. The rules are different when a child is with an adult and when they are their own. Teach them the different rules for the different situations.
- When I am on my own, my job is to first check with the adult in charge before I let a stranger get close to me, talk to me or give me anything.
- If I am old enough to be out on my own, it is safer to be where there are other people close by to get help if I need it.
- Do not give personal information to a stranger or to someone who makes me feel uncomfortable.
- It is OK to get help from strangers if an emergency is happening to me, and there is no one close by that I know.
- My job is to first check with the adult in charge before I go anywhere with anyone (a stranger or someone I know). I will tell the adult in charge where I am going, who will be with me and what I will be doing.
- I will have a safety plan for how to get help anywhere I go.
- I will know what my family’s safety rules are for children answering the door, being on the phone and internet.
3) EMPOWER your kids!
Teach them to be confident in their ability to determine if a situation is safe. Now that we have learned the importance of teaching stranger safety we regularly “test” our son by asking how he would respond in different situations. We praise him like crazy when he is able to tell us how he would respond safely possibly unsafe situations. We can see his face light up! We believe this is key in helping him be able to make a safe decision in unsafe situations.
Nancy McBride, national safety director of The Center for Missing and Exploited Children says, “A child’s ability to understand safety skills and put them into practice is determined not just by age, but also by the child’s educational and developmental levels. To truly learn new safety skills, children need to model, rehearse and practice the skills to incorporate them into their daily lives.” Find fun ways to practice the rules above with your kids. This is one way we practice:
Who is a stranger game?
We usually play this game in the car. I name a person in our world and ask my 4 year old, is this someone you know or know well. We use “know well” as the phrase to determine if someone is a stranger or not.
- Is Grandma someone you know or know well? (know well!)
- Is Jake’s mom someone you know or know well? (don’t know well)
5) Read BOOKS to help teach stranger safety
- “The Bernstein Bears Learn about Strangers” by Jan and Stan Bernstein
- “Never Talk to Strangers” by S. D. Schindler and Irma Joyce
- “Who Is a Stranger and What Should I Do?” By Linda Walvoord Girard
- “A Stranger in the Park” by Donna Day Asay and Stuart Fitts