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Working with children has been a part of my life for almost 5 years. It has never been my dream work — it will probably never be — but I’ve always been good at it. Whether I was working in summer camps or just au-pairing, I learned to take care of children and reason around them. I spent a lot of nights thinking about what I heard, what I saw or how to help them develop the best way possible. I always tried to help them with whatever wants or needs they might have.
In September 2015, I started an au-pair experience. I started minding 2 boys on a daily basis. At the time they were 3 and 6 years old. From the first day, I could tell how well-behaved and smart they were. I could see that their parents did a great job. Although the children were acting reasonably, I soon realized that something was off. They weren’t sociable with strangers (children or adults). I just arrived in a country where no one spoke my native language, so I always took great care to talk whenever I could. I was making small talks with parents at the school and with other child-minders at the park. In other words, I was doing everything I could to improve my English.
Yet, every time I was doing so, one of the children would ask, “Do we know them?” or “Why are you talking to them?” This is when my brain started working. Was I doing something strange? I always heard that Irish people were easy to talk to. Was I mistaken? I realized a couple of months later that the answer was no. I wasn’t doing anything weird.
I never worried this much about stranger-danger. I never drew a line between these 2 words.
One sunny day, I took a stroll down the village with what I called my host mother and the children. We were having a good time getting to know each other when the youngest decided to go around the corner without us. We started running after him. Calling him. When we reached the child, she explained why he shouldn’t do that. Her first response was “What if someone kidnaps you?! We would never see you again!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that losing sight of a child for even a second is terrifying for a mom. A parent wants nothing more than to keep their children safe. But this helped me understand why these 2 amazing kids were so worried around strangers.
Sometimes after this “incident,” I started to acknowledge the way the mom reacted to the stranger-danger myth. When the oldest was going to the mailbox, she was never far. When he was starting to ask her to go places on his own, she was answering him with scary statements. When he was complaining that his friends do, it was just the same.
To be honest, I never worried this much about stranger-danger. I never drew a line between these 2 words. So, I started reading on the subject.
Recently, people started to think that our world is unsafe. Still, despite the huge media coverage, strangers abducting children is rare. In fact, according to center for child protection, it is the rarest (but the most alarming) kind of abduction. Most of the time children are abducted by relative or people known by the family. Still, parents are concerned by strangers more than ever before.
A prolific number of researches affirm that children accurately judge trustworthiness. Look at how babies behave. If there is something we can not deny in children it’s their ability to trust their own perception. They deserve to be taken seriously. And that includes their feelings. I would say that it is important to help them value people through their own impressions.
Recently, people started to think that our world is unsafe.
Imagine being your 7-year-old self again. Your parents always told you not to talk to strangers, but they are talking to them on a daily basis … Isn’t it contradictory? Isn’t stranger-danger a simplistic form of thinking? Isn’t it time to teach children about strangers differently?
Discuss The Concept Of Stranger
Children shouldn’t see strangers as a threat in the first place. By definition, a stranger is a person you have no personal acquaintance with. A person who is not a member of your family, group or community. In any case, strangers shouldn’t be directly linked to danger in the child’s mind. Instead you should emphasize the fact that they should not judge a book by its cover. Not all strangers are bad, and not all strangers are nice. The need here should be to help them develop tolerance and figure out the obvious signs in a given situation. For example, adults do not ask help from a child.
Don’t Scare, Empower Instead
The main point here is to avoid scary statements which could lead the child to get too fearful or have problems engaging with adults. Instead, you should give them a sense of control. The usual “stay in sight!” or “someone could take you away!” should turn into “make sure you can see me.”
You should also tell them that it’s ok to be rude sometimes. Some children would be afraid to do so because they’re told not to talk back to adults. It is important to let them know that in some circumstances it is acceptable to say “I don’t want to talk to you!” or “Go away!” You should help them grow confidence and teach them consent more than anything.
If there is something we can not deny in children it’s their ability to trust their own perception.
Don’t Overdo It
You need to let children follow their own instincts and give them — supervised — space. It is important to encourage them to play with others. If anything happens they can ask for help. And they should know who to ask it from. A parent’s ideal duty is to help them identify safe spots and environments (i.e ask from a group of adults, adults with children, or someone at a register).
By protecting them too much you tend to keep them away from reality. You create more things for them to be afraid of. By doing so you often dull them. You need to extend their curiosity and make them feel comfortable in their choice. Never forget that you won’t always be around but their instincts will.
Julie Val is a non-native speaker making her way through the english language. She writes about almost everything.