Many parents worry about the safety of their children, whether on the way to or from school, in the park, or anywhere else where constant adult supervision is lacking. One of the biggest concerns for parents is teaching their children how to be properly wary of strangers when out in public places. Yet the possibility of harm to children from unknown people, usually called “stranger danger,” can sometimes be overstated.

Much of the fear surrounding “stranger danger” comes from second- or third-hand stories, media reports, and educational films. Understandably, this information causes us to worry about our children. Yet, despite all of the attention focused on “stranger danger,” a closer look at child abductions doesn’t necessarily justify our conclusions on the severity of the problem. In the majority of cases, the danger comes not from a stranger, bur rather a perpetrator known to the parent or child. Of the approximately 69,000 abductions reported each year, 82 percent involve a family member, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Non-family abductions account for the remaining 18 percent and, of those, only 37 percent involve a stranger, just 6.7% of the total.

Ignoring these significant distinctions between types of strangers when teaching “stranger danger” may do little to address the actual threats children can encounter, or even deny them an opportunity to get help when needed. This famously happened with a Cub Scout lost in the Utah wilderness in 2005 who initially avoided his rescuers, even after being lost for days, because of fear of approaching strangers. Since most children’s encounters with adults do not involve actual strangers, it is important to teach children to be wary of people they have met only a few times as well as what is appropriate behavior with any adult.

Some organizations, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), believe that society needs to retire the “stranger danger” message, which that group views as incomplete and outdated.  NCMEC has learned that children do not fully understand the concept and are confused by the concept of “good” and “bad” strangers. They will often describe a stranger as someone who is “ugly or mean” and don’t perceive “nice-looking or friendly” people as strangers.  All the same, making it clear to your child that most people would rather help than hurt a child can dispel some of the anxiety children face when being taught about safety.

 Most importantly, perhaps, is teaching children in a way that allows them to understand the situation without scaring them. Going over simple rules of behavior for your child when out playing, whether or not they are being watched by a parent or some other responsible adult is one of the surest ways to avoid danger. Instruct children to always join a friend when going to and from school, and to never take short-cuts or go into isolated areas. Walk the route with your child pointing out landmarks and safe places to go if they need help. A safe place can be as straightforward as a police station, fire station, church or retail shop located along a walking route.

Teach children to trust their feelings if they feel uncomfortable, scared, or confused. Children need to know to get away from that person and tell a trusted adult. Teach your children that it is more important to get out of a threatening or uncomfortable situation than it is to be polite. If an adult approaches a child asking for help or directions, children need to know that it is not impolite to say “no”.   Adults, especially those they don’t know, should not be asking children for help. Children also need to know that they should never go anywhere with someone they don’t know and should never get into cars or go into houses of neighbors they don’t know very well unless you say it is okay.

Parents need to be sure of their family’s rules and procedures and set a good example when out with their children. Greeting the local police officer, crossing guard, or mail carrier when walking with your child makes it clear that casual interaction with people they do not know well isn’t always harmful. Similarly, making a game or teaching experience out of a safe situation can provide good practice in following basic precautions as well as giving you the chance to answer some of their questions, like “Do I need to check first with you if I am going to go somewhere with someone I know?,” “What should I yell if someone is tries to take me?,” and “What should I do if I am lost?”

The most important thing for parents to remember when talking about personal safety and “stranger danger” is that it is both a very real problem and that it should be approached carefully so as to educate children rather than scare them. As with other life-skills, teaching your child how to interact with strangers they will meet every day can be a source of enrichment rather than just another set of rules for your child to follow. Teaching children to make their own good decisions about safety will help keep them out of harm’s way and empower them to seek help when needed.  Teaching personal safety skills can be a way of connecting children to the good parts of our community, rather than simply attempting to shield them from the bad.

Safety Tips for Parents:

  • Know your child’s route to and from school.
  • Designate “safe” houses in your neighborhood where your child may go if they are in danger.
  • Know your child’s after school activities.
  • Know your child’s friends and their parents and have a list of their phone numbers and addresses.
  • Know what your child is wearing each day.
  • Never put your child’s name on the outside of their clothing.
  • Keep a current photo and video of your child handy.
  • Keep a copy of your child’s fingerprints.
  • If your child doesn’t want to be with someone, ask them why, and pursue the topic until you find a reason.
  • Make sure your child knows that adults shouldn’t ask children for help and that adult’s shouldn’t ask children to keep secrets. 

 Safety Tips for Kids:

  • Make sure you know important information (full name, parent’s full name, address, and phone number).
  • Never go anywhere with someone you don’t know, even if they offer you candy or ask for help.
  • Don’t get into cars or go into houses of neighbors you don’t know very well unless Mom or Dad says it is okay.
  • Have a secret code word that you and only your parents know.  If someone doesn’t know the secret code word, don’t go with them.
  • Even trusted people shouldn’t ask you to do something that makes you uncomfortable.
  • It’s okay to say “No” to adults.
  • Shout “No” or “Stop” if someone touches you inappropriately, then tell your mom or dad.
  • Be as loud as possible if you are in danger.
  • If you are lost or in danger, you can locate a pay phone or a public phone and dial 9-1-1 for free.