Redefining “Stranger Danger”



Parents, school officials and law enforcement officers have used the phrase “stranger danger” for decades as way to talk with children about staying safe. But in today’s increasingly social society, where Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and online gaming blur the line between friends and strangers, the term is quickly becoming irrelevant.

            “It’s a catchy phrase, but it’s not working,” says Lt. Kelli Bailiff of the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office. She has been working for many years to retire the language. “A child’s perception of what ‘stranger’ means or what one looks like is different from an adult’s.”

            To illustrate her point, Bailiff uses the example of a person who drives around the neighborhood waving to children. After a child sees that person the first day, the driver will return within a day or two, again driving and waving. This time, the child may wave back.       “When the perpetrator follows this pattern three or four more times, the child no longer perceives the person as a stranger,” she explains. “Instead, the child begins to view the individual as a nice person who is just driving around and waving. When the perpetrator takes the opportunity to approach the child, the child doesn’t feel the threat of the so-called stranger.”

            The topic is further muddied by the fact that the majority of crimes against children are committed by someone they know. “It is often not strangers but people who know the child that put them in unsafe situations,” says Anna Brumitt, a professional school counselor for the Park Hill School District. “I tell students that ‘Not every stranger is a danger, and not everyone you know is safe.’ It’s important to encourage students to trust their feelings and understand that if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, even if the person causing the feeling is someone they know.”

            Sgt. Roy Murry with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the Kansas City Police Department advocates for parents to have open and honest conversations with their children. “Emphasize that anytime someone makes them feel uncomfortable, they should tell Mom and Dad, even if it’s someone the family trusts.”

            So if “stranger danger” is out, how should parents approach the topic? While most parents have conversations on an as-needed basis, such as when something comes up in the news, they also recognize that it must be an ongoing conversation. “It’s a constant topic,” says Susan Mason, a Kansas City mom of two sons. “You have to keep your finger on the pulse. There are no do-overs. You can’t take away a bad five minutes.”

            The age of a child typically guides the level of conversation. “The discussions of safety tips and rules should start at a very early age,” advises Bailiff. “Build that foundation of open communication. Parents know their child and can adjust the conversation as that child’s behavior and maturity change.”

            Some parents choose to hold the same conversation with every child in the family, regardless of her age. “We generally talk to our two daughters in the same way because we feel if they hear it the same every time—even if they don’t quite understand it all at once—it will sink in,” explains Parkville mom Della Evans. “At the very least, they will understand the severity and importance of what we are saying.”

             A child’s personality also plays a role in how parents talk about safety. “My younger son is curious and outgoing, and he will talk to anyone,” says Mason. “With him, we have to be blunt in our conversations. This isn’t the case with our older son. He is usually the one that questions me or my husband when we talk to people we don’t know.”

            Just as children are urged to talk with their parents if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, Murry encourages parents to do the same. “If parents even have an inkling of wrongdoing, they should call their local law enforcement agency and speak with a detective in the related unit. Even if they are not sure a crime has been committed, the detective can offer advice and help sort out the situation. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

            While the topic of child safety can be scary and overwhelming, it’s important to employ common sense. “I think I have shown my children what it looks like to cautiously but confidently ask a stranger for directions when needed, such as when we were on vacation and got a little lost,” says Susan McDaniel, a Blue Springs mother of four, who constantly educates her children on staying safe while trying not to be overbearing. “The thought of living in constant fear worries me as much as throwing all caution to the wind.”    

Mari Rydings is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Platte Woods with her husband, twin daughters and their dog, Nixon. She blogs at MyIdealReality.blogspot.com

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