We all talk to strangers all the time.
There are checkout clerks, restaurant servers, bank tellers, mail carriers, doctors and nurses. Solicitors on the phone or someone calling from the utility company. Small talk while standing in a line. A new neighbor. A friend of a friend. A store clerk when we call to check on the hours or directions. Another parent at the playground.
You might even be the type of person to say hello to someone walking by you on the sidewalk.
Most of us encourage our children to talk to strangers, too.
We send them off on the playground with kids they’ve never met. We drop them off in a new classroom and tell them to listen to the new teacher. We encourage them to reply politely when a service worker asks how they’re doing today. We introduce them to rarely-seen relatives and expect them to instantly treat them like family.
In this context, telling kids not to talk to strangers isn’t just misguided advice; it’s downright absurd!
The world of people is full of strangers. They are our community. They are the web of humanity around us. We are them.
Teaching children not to talk to strangers is not just confusing. It also communicates that the world is a scary place and that people are untrustworthy. This serves to disconnect children from engaging with their community.
Do you have a favorite story about interacting with a stranger in public? Has someone been helpful or offered a kind word? Has a stranger ever made you laugh or think about something in a new way?
Let’s talk about some other ways to talk to children about strangers.
There are two main goals when teaching about strangers. One is protecting children from strangers who would do them harm. The other is teaching them how to reach out to strangers when they are in need.
Teach your children to never leave an area with another person without checking with you first. This is practical for all kinds of situations, not just with strangers. You don’t want your child wandering out of the park with other kids, for example. Telling them not to leave an area without checking with you is sound advice for all situations.
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Next, help your child learn that they do not have to do something with another person that makes them uncomfortable. They don’t have to answer questions they don’t like. No one should touch them without their consent. It is always okay to walk away from a person with no explanation required. They do not have to be polite. They can safeguard their own feelings and comfort. They are always welcome to tell you about any situation that makes them uncomfortable.
This is a message that you can reinforce on a daily basis in familiar situations. If your child does not want to talk to a cashier, do not force them to do so or make excuses on their behalf. Don’t require your child to give physical affection when they don’t want to. Teach them that NO is a complete sentence.
There are occasions when your child may need to reach out to a stranger for help. If they get lost in a public place, for example, or if you are hurt.
First, teach your kids that you trust their judgement. 99% of strangers out there have only good intentions, and we each have to rely on our gut feelings.
Additional Reading: Trust Kids
You can make suggestions about who is most likely to be able to help. A parent with children is a perfect suggestion. Any family group is likely to be safe helpers, and especially willing to help a child. A second idea is to look for employees of the place where you are. Anyone on duty will be helpful to a child in need.
Keep in mind that almost no one is out to hurt your child. There is no need to instill in them fear or anxiety about the people in their community.
Also understand that family members and other people they know well commit most of the crimes against children. Teach that the messages you give about strangers apply to all people. Reinforce this message by your actions all the time.
No one should touch your child without their permission, even if it’s a relative. If someone makes your child uneasy, they can go for help, even if the uncomfortable person is a friend.
Let your child know they can talk to you about what makes them uncomfortable. You can even offer suggestions for who they can talk to if they have concerns about you.
These messages strengthen a child’s autonomy and ability to care for themselves. They provide the skills for navigating social situations with safety and confidence.
Have you talked to your kids about strangers? What kinds of things have you said to help your child while not overstating the danger? Has your child had a positive interaction with a stranger that you’d like to share?