'Don't Talk to Strangers' is Dangerous Advice
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Want to keep your children safe? Teach them to talk to strangers.
Oh, sure, that's easy for me to say -- Ms. Free-Range Kids. But it's not just me. "We have been trying to debunk the myth of stranger danger," says Ernie Allen. He's the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the group that put the missing kids' pictures on the milk cartons (and got us all hysterical about stranger danger in the first place).
As Mr. Allen knows, most child abuse occurs at the hands of someone the child knows well -- a stepparent, a brother, a babysitter -- not a stranger. So we're already pointing kids in the wrong direction when we tell them that strangers are the big threat in town.
But another problem with "Stranger danger!" is that it teaches kids not to develop any common sense. Case in point:
The other day my friend was in the aisles of Target, trying to decide between two bathing suits. A little girl sitting in a cart nearby -- her mother but an arm's distance away -- piped up in her 3-year-old voice, "I like the pink one."
My friend replied that she was leaning toward the black one when the mother turned around, saw her daughter talking to someone she didn't know and rushed her away, yelling, "We do not talk to strangers!"
Even those really dangerous strangers who are middle-aged ladies, in a public place, buying clothes.
What lesson has that mom taught her child? That everyone, everywhere is dangerous. That she should make no distinction between the guy who lost his puppy and the granny who chucks her under the chin. And why is that a terrible lesson? It could actually make the kid less safe.
Let's say that some day that girl really does find herself in a tight spot. To jump to the ultimate nightmare, let's even say that one day there's a van following her -- a white one, without windows (the predator's vehicle of choice). The girl can keep walking, trusting no one and hoping to God she's safe. Or, she can run to the stranger pruning his hedges and say, "Let me stand next to you till that guy leaves!" She can run into the store and tell a stranger, "Call 911!" She doesn't have to wait for a policeman. She can ask for -- and get! -- help from any stranger because the vast majority of strangers are not predators. They're like you and me.
That's why the best advice is this: Teach your children they can talk to strangers, they just cannot go off with strangers. It's an easier lesson to learn and it will prevent your child from growing up a paranoid, freaked-out dum-dum.
Like that mom.
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