Stranger Danger Anger

Stay away from columnists irritated by “stranger danger” philosophy

Early last week, the Belmont School Department issued a “Stranger Danger Alert” in response to a Chenery Middle School staff person’s report of having seen a “suspicious, unknown adult [male]” hanging around a street corner in close proximity to the school.  According to the report: “When approached by a staff member, the adult left the property and proceeded to drive away.”

I have no issue with how this event was handled. Adults who linger around a middle school, peering at the playground area, should certainly be requested to move along. Kudos to the unidentified staff person who took action.  And I appreciate that the community was notified that this event occurred.

One thing, however, bothered me in the follow-up email to the community. This message included the following imperative: “Please speak with your child about the importance of never speaking with strangers …”

I have a real problem with the philosophy underlying such “stranger danger” education.

When I was in a grade school, our “stranger danger” education consisted of a filmstrip (remember those?) featuring Patch the Pony. 

“Nay, Nay, from Strangers Stay Away!”  admonished the earnest pony.  I have completely forgotten the rest of the filmstrip; perhaps because the content was not in rhyme. However, I do recall that my teacher followed this lesson up with the following advice: if a stranger in a car asks you for directions, it is best not to stand too close to the car. Apparently a young woman was once pulled into a car this way and she was never heard from again. So, when you see me shouting directions on Lexington Street from a distance of twenty feet away (to the poor lost soul who thinks she’s on the Lexington Street in Waltham,) you’ll know why.

But, where was I? Oh, yes, stranger danger.

This whole “never talk to strangers” maxim irritates me. First of all, we adults violate this rule on a daily basis. We chat about the weather to the man who pumps our gas, we chat about the high price of produce to the cashier ringing up our purchases, we chat to dog owners about how cute their puppy is. In short, we talk with strangers every day. Of course, this is not what parents mean when we tell the kids never to talk with strangers. We mean for them to never talk with creepy strangers who are lurking on street corners. I get this distinction, I really do. But does a 4-year-old get this distinction? Or does a four-year-old simply witness Mommy and Daddy being inconsistent. Again.

Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Gift, argues that “stranger danger” is a dangerous maxim for several reasons. Most importantly, the “Never Talk to Strangers” message implies that strangers may harm you, but people you know will not. Abuse statistics make it clear that the opposite is far more often true: it is the known entity in a child’s life who often inflicts the harm – the coach, the step-uncle, etc.

“The list of violently inclined predatory criminals defeated because a parent told his/her child not to talk to strangers isn’t long enough to be called a list at all.” said de Becker.

De Becker instead strongly encourages parents to instruct their children to approach strangers in controlled situations. I have followed his advice and regularly requested, when my kids were little, that they approach strangers to find out the time, or to learn when a park closes, or where the nearest ice cream shop is. De Becker advises that both adults and children need to hone instincts around detecting real versus perceived dangers. 

In other words, it is not “strangers” per se who are the real issue, but strangeness. We need to be attentive to that which makes us feel uncomfortable. And one accessible way to obtain a sense of who is trustworthy, in this vast world of strangers, is by interacting with all kinds of people and developing a sense of intuition. De Becker posits that kids who are more comfortable interacting with strangers are less likely to be victims than children taught never to talk to strangers.

The other problem with “stranger danger” education is that it’s not effective in achieving its goal. According to Ken Wooden, author of Child Lures, children who receive “stranger danger” education are just as likely to inappropriately interact with strangers than children who do not receive the education. 

In fact, there is an episode of Oprah that demonstrates this exact point. The show’s producer approached various kids in a park to solicit their help in finding his lost puppy. It took the average child just 35 seconds to eagerly follow this “stranger” out of the park in search of Fido. The mothers, who watched in horror as their kids skipped away, insisted to Oprah that their children had been taught to never do exactly what they had just done.

Like all parents, I want my kids to be cautious and to exercise good judgment.  I don’t want them to be de facto terrified of strangers. I think it’s important for kids to understand that for every stranger they encounter who may harm them, there are millions out there who will not. As a de Becker reader, I resonate with the wisdom in teaching kids how to perceive the difference between adults who intend harm and the majority of adults who do not. And actually talking to strangers, as opposed to Nay, Nay Stay Away, is one way to cultivate that instinct.

Ironically, when kids are small, it is usually a stranger who is most often a great help in reuniting lost children with frantic parents, should they become separated.

Bottom-line: we should teach our kids to discern a dangerous stranger from an innocuous stranger. We should teach our kids that sometimes people they know intend harm. We should teach kids to pay attention to a gut feeling when something feels wrong. And we should come up with a better name for this kind of education than “stranger danger.”

Editor's note: The person who was the focus of the Chenery "Alert" informed Belmont Police that he is a father who occasionally visits the school to watch his children who are students at the school.

Robin Cushman Phillips October 09, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Hear, hear!!
Sue Bass October 10, 2012 at 11:27 AM
Great column. Thanks.
Chris Ng October 12, 2012 at 02:28 AM
I agree, well thought out, and well written. Thanks for this!


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