You might see your toddler as fragile and vulnerable, but really they’re smart and resilient. Just consider how many times they’ve bounced their head off the corner of the coffee table without any kind of damage. Or, how they’ve managed to outsmart you into watching the same episode of Paw Patrol for the gazillionth time. Which makes sense, considering they’re pretty much the embodiment of that dopy klutz of a dalmatian. Ryder neeeeeeeeds us!
You probably need to worry so much when they’re out in the world — but you will. The best thing you can do is give them the tools they require to recognize threatening people, and know what to do when that happens. Because every kid should rely on their own cleverness, not a bunch of dogs in utility sport vehicles.
Outdated Stranger Danger
Back in the 80s, kids were sent out into the wild on banana-seat Huffy bikes, with a sharpened stick, no helmets, a firm handshake, and a stoic “Good luck.”
After a couple high-profile child abduction cases, and some insane hysteria regarding kid-killing satanic cults, the standard “stranger danger” curriculum was hammered out in a blind parent panic. A good place to start understanding this time is the amazing podcast In The Dark.
The cry was: “Don’t talk to strangers!” Unfortunately that completely disregarded emerging facts that kids are more often taken, hurt or molested by someone they know. Still, the shadow of playground perverts was ever-present and kids were really no better equipped to deal with the threat. “What if the stranger is nice?” “What if they need help finding a puppy?” “Can I actually say no to an adult?” And, “What if their van has a super-sweet airbrushed pegasus galloping through space?”
The problem with the old stranger danger talk is that it was more about striking fear into the hearts of kids, instead of empowering them. Kids need less fear and more: “Yes, sweetie, just go ahead and kick them in the balls.”
A New Way
The old stranger talk was not only missing empowerment, it was also missing some very important nuance. A few added distinctions help kids use their own instincts and offer some outs when the feel unsafe. Here’s how to raise a kid who’s not too freaked out to leave the house.
They might equate the idea of a stranger to some kind of Gargamel-ish looking dude out on the hunt for tiny blue. (What the hell are Smurfs even? Marmots? Are they talking marmots? With hats?)
But the fact is that strangers can be good looking. And they can also be women. So it’s more about the behavior of the stranger than anything else.
Introduce Good Strangers
The fact is there are very many people in this world that are strangers to your kid who could also be incredibly helpful. These include uniformed police officers, store clerks with name badges, and firemen who aren’t busy putting out fires.
Let your kid know that these are all folks they can find if they are ever in need of assistance and can’t reach you for some reason. If you’d like to reinforce this idea, point those very people out as you walk through the world. This has the added benefit of helping them know there’s almost always someone safe nearby.
Talk About Behaviors
Because pinning down bad strangers is not as easy as pointing to a picture of a sweaty, leering, middle-aged dude with a mustache. It’s more imprtant to focus on the behaviors of the stranger.
You can point out the fact that a stranger should always only ever ask an adult for help. Dude needs help finding his dog? Tell it to the local animal shelter, buck-o.
Let them know that strangers should never ask your kid to keep secrets. Or ask to be alone with them. Help them understand that they have the ability to act based on their own sense of what makes them feel icky or uncomfortable. So mustaches, obvs.
Role playing scenarios in a playgroup is a way to talk about the scary stuff while empowering them to act at the same time — but you might have to sacrifice your shins to teach them what to do if someone tries to grab them.
Teaching your kid boundaries is strangely controversial, but tt doesn’t have to be. In fact it’s pretty simple. Let them know that no adult can control their body, and don’t force them to hug anyone. It will give them a sense that “no” actually means something. They are more than allowed to say the word, and loud enough for people to hear.
Also, teach them the real names for their private parts. Tell them that the only people who are allowed to touch are their mom, dad, and doctors. This also allows them to be much more accurate and succinct if something should ever happen.
Support Their Friendships
Animal herds are safe because they stay close to one another. Playing in a group might be noisy as hell to you, but it’s super safe for them. So support and foster the friendships they make, and encourage them to play in groups whenever possible.
Lord knows it’s worked for the Paw Patrol so far. That is, if that episode you’ve memorized by now has any truth to it.