How to help your child tell good strangers from tricky people
We were celebrating 4th of July at a park festival.
Usually, before kids run into the rides we reinforce the safety rules:
- "What do you do if you get lost? Whom do you ask for help? Where do we meet if we are separated in a crowd? What's my phone number?"
Sometime between Merry-go-round and corn on the cob my son grabbed my hand and, yelling over the music, pointed to the food area:
- "Mom, look, a police officer is grilling a steak!"
- “Well cool”, I thought - until I realized something was odd...
By the way:
Your child needs to know much more than this to be safe during a public event.
We cover it all in a specialty course "Safety in a public place"
This course is about what to do before leaving the house to make sure you can find each other quickly if being separated in a public place or any other trouble occurs.
You don’t want your kids to be afraid of people
I've seen so many times, I need to say this: scaring kids (even unintentionally) is always bad for their safety.
Fear may look like a shortcut, especially when we don't have time or courage to discuss the topic.
But it usually bites you later.
A child intimidated by the concept of a ‘stranger danger’ may not be able to ask a stranger for help - and thus get into bigger trouble.
Instead of going to a cashier in a store, a lost child decides to run into the parking to look for your car.
Fear is easy to instill, not so easy to get rid of.
Here is the SOLUTION:
How can we paint a clear picture of who a stranger is?
Kids need to understand two fundamental concepts:
- Levels of trust - define how close the person is (close, kinda-known, stranger)
- Levels of goodness - define how good that person is (helpful, neutral, harmful)
Kids should not mix them.
What are the levels of trust?
There are 3 levels of trust:
- Trusted circle
Level of trust #1. Trusted circle:
This circle includes family members and REALLY close friends of the family (we talk about grown-up here - parents' friends, not kids' friends).
If you have a large extended family you need to indicate the members of the trusted circle.
You can do it by creating a family password. This is a secret word or phrase that only trusted people inside the circle can know.
Discuss who these people will be and share this password with them. Tell kids never to share it outside.
This password can serve as an emergency password. In case you need someone to help your child in an emergency.
For example, if your car broke and you can't pick them up and need to ask someone to help, kids will know that they can trust this person - because you gave him the password.
Change the password from time to time, as well as any time it was used for real.
This applies to families with healthy relationships assuming nobody can harm a child at home.
! If your intuition is telling you something is wrong with someone inside the family trusted circle, you are usually right.
Trust your intuition around any people who trigger your red flags with the signs of unhealthy behaviors. Regardless of how close they are do not include them in the trusted circle for your child.
Extra people in a trusted circle
Other people beyond the family trusted circle that kids can usually trust, include teachers that we (parents) know, and public servants.
How can kids identify the trustful public servants?
Pay your child's attention to how public servants look in your area:
So, who was that weird police officer grilling steaks on the 4th of July carnival in the park?
A man was leaning over the grill, waving to kids, and offering free samples.
We started moving closer walking through the crowd.
Then I could see:
My son confused the cook with the police officer!
Both had black uniforms with lots of badges on them, and both had lots of things attached to their belts.
And some police officers were on foot mixed with the crowd as well!
We came even closer to note all the nuanced differences. We spent a fair amount of time staring at the police officers that day.
So, when you discuss the uniforms, make sure your child knows how exactly they look in your area.
Tip: call your local police department - they often have tours and events for kids.
The uniforms of the road police and your constable may be different in color. The regular and holiday attire may be different, too.
Teach kids that uniforms may be faked. Guns can be faked, too.
A home-made vest with a sign "road-police" on the back may convince a child to comply with the "instructions" of a person wearing such a "uniform" to follow him because “this sidewalk is closed”.
The same applies to the employees of stores, libraries, entertainment centers, etc. The badge with the name does not mean this person works here.
A child needs to see this person working at the place of work.
A cashier, a front-desk person - anyone "attached" to the regular place of work is safer than others.
A child should never leave with this person and needs to stay at that place until he gets help.
He can attract additional people to stay with him as his "lifeguards" (like other moms with kids).
! Any person approaching a child with the request/offer to leave with him (regardless of the signs of the public servant or an employee of this place) cannot be trusted unless that's a crowd emergency situation.
Level of trust #2. People we are acquainted with ("kinda known"):
Teachers at school that kids and we (parents) don't know well, other kids' moms, coaches, random family friends, etc.
#3 Levels of trust: Strangers – all other people are strangers and remain strangers until they are introduced to the child by his parents.
To solve the problem of ‘stranger danger’ without placing unwanted fears onto your kids you need to handle it as part of a regular ongoing discussion.
I will show you how to use everyday situations, movies, and books as natural prompts to start these conversations.
What are the levels of goodness?
Apart from the levels of trust, kids need to understand 3 levels of "goodness."
Kids need to know that regardless of the levels of trust, the levels of "goodness" are
1. Good/helpful people - most people, in general, are good and wish you well.
2. Neutral people - some people don't care about you.
3. Dangerous/harmful people - a small number of people can be harmful.
How levels of trust and levels of goodness work together
! Keep the levels of trust (close, acquaintance, stranger) separate from the levels of goodness (helpful, neutral, harmful).
Avoid mixing them.
Here is the rule for kids:
! “The fact that you KNOW someone, does not mean he is good - and vice versa.”
You might see a harmful person in the inner circle, and an awesome super-helpful
The inner circle of trust does not mean all "good" people. And strangers are not necessarily bad.
Most child-related troubles are caused not by strangers, but by the people within
the family circle or acquaintances.
Conversation prompt: How to talk about the definition of a stranger
“A stranger means the level of trust someone is granted.
Not the level of goodness.
Most strangers wish you well.
Strangers are not the scary cartoon characters wearing masks and hats.
Strangers are ordinary people of any gender, race, age, and appearance who do not belong to the inner circle of trust nor the circle of acquaintances.
! Even a child you have just met is still a stranger - until your parents have gotten acquainted with him.
All the safety RULES apply to communications with this child”.
Now your child can understand what your “Never leave with a stranger” rule means to him:
You are not supposed to run off with a new friend you've met 5 minutes ago, with
another mom on a playground, or a person walking a puppy.
! These people do not need to wear a mask, offer candy, or hide in the bushes to qualify
as being strangers.
But they are strangers.
Empower your kids with the confidence to check with you first.
If they hesitate about whether to trust someone, tell them always think the worst.
Doubt is one of the gut feelings.
If you DON'T FEEL safe, you probably ARE NOT.
If you think this topic is important, please share this page with other parents - they will thank you!
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What parents say:
"The questions of this test made me think of how many important topics my kids yet need to learn about safety.
Thank you for bringing it to my attention"
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