Stranger danger is the overhead concept taught to many children that strangers are inherently dangerous and should not be approached or spoken with because of their potential for harm. This has been a common method used with the good intention of keeping children safe. The phrase “Don’t talk to strangers,” and the many instructions given to children to avoid strangers at all times has come under great criticism by numerous advocates who work to keep kids safe.
Some of the key concepts of stranger danger are often repeated to kids. A few of these include telling children:
- Don’t talk to strangers who approach you in public
- Don’t believe strangers who offer rides or solicit help to look for things like “lost puppies.”
- Don’t get into a car with a stranger reporting the illness of a parent.
The list can go on extensively, and the main point is that children should perceive anyone not known as potentially harmful.
The trouble is, studies on this issue show that it doesn’t always work, and many kids create a visual picture of a stranger as being somehow ugly or scary. Even if they are taught differently, numerous studies have shown that many children completely ignore stranger danger impulses if a stranger seems friendly enough. Alternately, a child in a perilous situation may fail to ask for help from people because they so fear all people they don’t know. This was the case in 2005, when an eleven-year-old boy who was lost evaded rescuers for four days because he was afraid to speak with strangers.
It has been suggested by many critics of stranger danger that this teaching be abandoned in favor of empowering children with other messages. One of these messages would implicitly be that strangers could be a great source of help if a child is lost or in an emergency setting. It’s also argued by organizations like the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that most children may ignore stranger danger in any case because it isn’t the way parents act. Parents are always speaking with strangers: at grocery stores, in line at the movies, at schools, and et cetera. So children do not see stranger danger practiced on a regular basis by their parents or guardians.
Many believe some form of middle ground is necessary that helps children understand and avoid situations, which might lead to their harm. This would include learning about scenarios that purportedly are dangerous. However, many, including organizations that attempt to prevent child sexual abuse, have abandoned teaching only stranger danger. This is particularly important since children are often abused by people they know. Thus empowerment strategies that give children a sense of self and feeling they have the right to fight or speak up may be more effective in protecting kids.