The other day I was talking with one of my best friends, when the topic (as it often does) turned to Adventures in Childrearing. Specifically, we were talking about how our kids are starting to ask the tough questions. As interesting as it is to see our little babies grow into these critically-thinking mini-people, it can be really, really tricky when they ask questions that have deep, and sometimes disturbing, answers.
In these early years, they’re still so little.
How much should we really say? We have to walk a fine line between totally glossing over something that deserves to be discussed and overwhelming them with unnecessary, sometimes scary, information.
The question that really got my friend and I thinking and talking was that of “stranger danger.”
Strangers, Berenstain Bears Style
About a week ago, Z asked me why we aren’t supposed to talk to strangers. I know that this comes from his love of all things Berenstain Bears.
We read Berenstain Bears books so often that Brother, Sister, Mama, and Papa Bear practically have their own seats at our dinner table. I have mixed feelings about these books, but that’s a topic for another day!
So anyway, in one of these books (The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers), they deal with the issue of whether it’s okay to talk to strangers or not.
While—to their credit—they do sort of explore the idea that there is a gray area, it’s not really done in a way that a little guy can understand.
They basically talk about how kids shouldn’t talk to strangers, then acknowledge that not all strangers are bad and that you can’t tell just by looking at someone whether he or she is one of the few bad strangers, and then Brother talks to a stranger and gets in trouble for it.
Now, I totally agree that Brother should have gotten in trouble in this particular situation. He was going to get in the car of a stranger. Yikes!!!
But, they only briefly reiterate the gray area bit. Then, on the last page, their first rule for “cubs” about strangers is “Never talk to a stranger.” With no exceptions. It’s very black and white.
So, to my son’s 3-year-old mind, the moral of the story is: Talking to strangers = breaking rules = getting in trouble.
Hmmm. I don’t love that!
Z is a very happy, friendly kid who will respond to a stranger saying, “Hey, that’s a cool truck on your shirt!” with, “It’s a monster truck! It crashes over cars. I have four monster trucks at home. Do you know Grave Digger?”
And I like that about him.
Being super shy myself, I think it’s fantastic that Z doesn’t have the inhibitions to turn bright red and mumble “thanks . . .” when someone says something nice to him. I don’t want to scare that out of him by telling him he must never talk to strangers.
But then again, I don’t want him being so unafraid that he’ll walk off with anybody who gives him the time of day.
So when he asked me why we shouldn’t talk to strangers, I was conflicted.
What Do We Tell Them About Strangers?
In one of my rare thinking-on-my-feet moments, I was able to formulate what I think was a pretty decent response to his questions on the topic. When I shared the ideas with my friend, she seemed to think they were pretty solid, so I’ll share them with you now.
Without going too far into the weeds and detailing our whole conversation (it involved many, many “Why”s and a lot of repetition, as you might imagine), I’ll boil it down into a few key points:
1. Our big rule is Don’t talk to strangers unless you’re with Mommy or Daddy.
– I think that helps him feel like he doesn’t have to totally shut down, but that if an adult he trusts isn’t around (which I can’t even imagine right now), he should be super cautious.
2. Most strangers are not bad! But it’s hard to know from looking at someone if they are a good person or a bad person.
– This was adapted from The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers. I just had to simplify it a lot for him.
3. A “bad” stranger is someone who might want to hurt you in some way or take you somewhere. Again, most people aren’t like that.
– Due to Z’s young age, I absolutely do not think it’s necessary to go into any more detail about what “bad” strangers are! I think that’s just enough for him.
Something to Keep in Mind
What I’m about to write is kind of gnarly and not actually good news.
It actually scares me more than it does reassure me, but I think it’s important, in the context of this post, to note that strangers are actually not the most common perpetrators of child abduction or sexual abuse.
You may be aware of this already, but here are a couple of statistics to back up that statement:
• According to the Polly Klaas Foundation, only “a fraction of 1%” of children who go missing each year are abducted by strangers.
• The U.S. Department of Justice reports that strangers account for about 10% of child sexual abusers.
So, again, this is not great news. I don’t like the idea that my kid is in more danger around people we know than around people we don’t know! I can’t imagine anyone we know ever doing anything to harm my child. I’d like to think that we would not have anything to do with someone who gave us even the slightest hint of being dangerous.
BUT, it does sort of reinforce the idea that talking to strangers might not be as dangerous and scary as some children’s books might make it out to be.
The Bottom Line
I don’t want my kid to be afraid of everyone he meets and shut down whenever someone tries to talk to him.
I think there is a great deal of value in chatting with people who we don’t know. That’s how we learn from one another and gain new perspectives.
However, I think it’s important to stick to and emphasize the big rule I listed above: Either my husband or I (or another trusted adult, but I didn’t want to complicate it for him yet) must be present if he’s going to engage with someone he doesn’t know.
Ultimately, talking to “strangers” is one of the very best ways to develop empathy and grow more compassionate. While we absolutely have to keep our kids safe and use common sense, we should not make them afraid of engaging with people they don’t know in all circumstances. It will close them off from a lot of really valuable insight.
I’d love to hear what you think! What are your rules about strangers? What were the rules when you were growing up?