The Mixed Messages We Teach About Strangers: How Can You Teach About Appropriate Decisions and Behavior?
One of the most difficult lessons that we need to teach our children is about being careful of strangers. It seems simple – stay away from strangers, don’t talk to strangers – but it is complicated by the mixed messages that our children see all around them.
Children do what they see and they see adults interacting with strangers. We go to the supermarket and we are friendly to the cashier (and we should be). We go to a restaurant and order food from a stranger. We go to the bank and hand our money to strangers. Adults talk to strangers, hand them our property, smile, laugh and seem to enjoy their company. Young children must wonder why it acceptable for us and not them – BUT WAIT – it is acceptable for them, too. When a stranger says, “Hello,” adults tell their children to return the greeting. When they are in the restaurant with us, we encourage them to do a very grown up task and order their own food (and we should). We even bring our children to family members who they rarely see or do not know and ask them to be warm and loving (see my article “Preschoolers & Strangers in the Family: Do You Force Affection?” for important information about those encounters).
Every one of our encounters with strangers and most of the responses that we teach our children are appropriate for the situation. The difficulty lies in a young child’s inability to separate and distinguish those interactions with dangerous situations. Parents often tell me that they worry about their child’s propensity to run up to strangers and speak with them. “Is it any wonder?” I have asked over and over. Consider your normal and appropriate daily interactions. Children are doing what they learned.
It is important to set and be very specific about boundaries with strangers. Our children need to understand:
They should ask their parents or other important adult if they can speak to the stranger. They need to understand that we know when it is okay to speak to someone but they don’t so they need to seek permission. It really is no different than the plethora of other activities that require our permission. We understand the bigger picture and the dangers. They do not.
They need to be reminded that we might be polite in the supermarket or bank but we would never go anywhere with those strangers. Young children do not know the boundary between friendly & polite and crossing into dangerous waters. You can point it out without creating undue anxiety. Simple and unemotionally state the facts – “Grown ups are polite but they don’t go places with strangers.”
Of course that’s not entirely true – the school bus driver, the taxi driver, the airplane pilot, even the new teacher are strangers and we let them take us places. Teach your children that teachers, public transportation workers, and the like are screened. There are tests like fingerprints that help us to know that we can get on the bus, go to school, etc. with those people.
We also don’t let strangers randomly take our pictures. Children need to learn to be a little guarded about picture taking by people who are not “important adult approved.” In this every-phone-is-a-camera world, the children also need to know that only strangers that their adults approve are allowed to take our picture and they do so only with our own equipment. Then they give it back to us. School sponsored pictures are okay, too, because the school tells parents/guardians ahead of time. If you give the school permission to photograph your child during events or in the classroom, please tell your child the specific boundaries of that permission.
We have approved of some situations; however, if anyone does anything scary or comfortable, children must know that they can tell their trusted adults and we will protect them (not judge them). If anyone touches their body (particularly more private parts of the body), they have to know they can tell us. Unfortunately, even people who are fingerprinted or in positions of usual trust can do the wrong thing.
Our young children need to know that ultimately, we are here to protect them and they need us to do so. When we teach about stranger interactions calmly, we demonstrate to our children that we have the ability to not only guide but to cope. We become living examples of what we hope they will become – confident decision makers, critical thinkers and people who try to see many sides of confusing situations so we can do what keeps us and our loved ones safe.
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