Teaching Your Child About Strangers
One of the most troublesome safety concerns for parents is the issue of dealing with strangers. You certainly don't want to quash your child's friendliness if he is naturally outgoing. Nor do you want to terrorize your child, making him paranoid and scared of everyone by dwelling on such unpleasant possibilities as kidnapping, rape, and murder. Such horror stories make the evening news, but are thankfully uncommon.
As a preschooler, your child doesn't need to know the graphic and horrifying details that make you want to protect him against strangers. Your nightmares need not—and indeed should not—become his nightmares. Fortunately, you don't need to frighten your child to keep him safe. All he needs to know and follow is one fundamental rule:
You (or whoever is entrusted with his care) need to know where he is at every moment.
Your child will appreciate the simplicity and reciprocity of this arrangement. After all, he probably always wants to know where you are (even if it's just in your bedroom or in the bathroom). So why wouldn't you feel exactly the same way about him?
Make sure that your child knows that this rule is absolute and unbreakable. If your neighbors want to take him out to the movies with their children, your child has to call or come home and ask you first. If he wants to look at the coloring books at the local drugstore while you pick out some Band-Aids, you need to know it first. Even if he just wants to go outside to play in the yard, your child needs to let you know. This simple rule, if strictly observed, will keep your child safe from other people.
Never (?) Talk to Strangers
On TV, Barney the dinosaur warns children, "Never talk to strangers!" But this tuneful advice is not only paranoid, but not very practical either. To your child, virtually everyone she meets is a stranger, at least at first: day-care providers and teachers, babysitters, the grocery store clerk, the bank teller, doctors and nurses and dentists, the mail carrier, even police officers. Most of them are probably friendly and kindly disposed toward children. "Never" is too extreme. If you're there, your child is safe talking to almost anyone. And if you're not there, if you've somehow become separated, then your child will need help from a stranger.
To protect your child from dangerous strangers, you'll first need to make clear to her what you mean when you use the word, "stranger." A stranger is not:
Start to teach your child his phone number and address at an early age. By three, he should know, at the very least, his own full name and your full names. By three-and-a-half, he should have his address memorized, too. And by age four, your preschooler should know his phone number.
- merely someone your child doesn't know (because your child doesn't know many people, including most of your friends);
- someone who looks strange or mean (because many strangers look nice and normal); or
- someone who doesn't know your child's name (because strangers may overhear her name).
A stranger is anyone to whom your child has not been introduced by you (or your child's day-care provider, preschool teacher, or caregiver). After a responsible adult has introduced someone, that person is no longer a stranger.
If your child is lost or separated from you, he will have no choice but to ask strangers for help. So if you have a hard and fast rule that forbids your child from talking to any strangers, he will be in quite a quandary.
How will your preschooler know whom to ask? Again, rehearse the situation with your child before it happens. Teach him that when he absolutely must approach a stranger to ask for help, he should first look for uniforms. Your three- or four-year-old can probably tell the difference between a uniform and regular clothes. So your child should seek out someone in uniform: a police officer, a store security guard, a cashier, a waiter. This is the person to talk to if he's lost.
A Better Rule
"Never talk to strangers!" doesn't allow enough flexibility to be a viable rule for preschoolers. So what should you teach your child to keep her safe from other people?
One simple rule:
Never, ever go anywhere with a stranger (or for that matter, with a relative or friend) unless the people she knows and trusts best—that is, you or another of her caregivers—says it's okay.
Again, you or your child's caregiver needs to know where she is at all times.
Your child will remain safe as long as she observes this rule religiously. Make sure she understands that this is an absolute rule, and that she shouldn't listen to anyone who tries to persuade her to break this rule. (Indeed, she should notify you immediately if anyone does.) If she sticks to this rule, nobody—again, stranger, relative, or friend—will be able to lure your child into a car with promises of candy, ice cream, or a puppy, because she'll know she needs to ask permission first. No one can trick her into going away by saying that you're hurt or sick and need her, or that you're late and asked that person to pick her up from preschool, because she'll know that she must check with the babysitter or preschool teacher before going anywhere with anyone.