Talking to Strangers: The Age-Old Dilemma

“What have your parents told you that you should or shouldn’t do with strangers?”

That line has been spoken exactly this way since CAP originated in 1978. It was designed to elicit answers from children. So, what have parents told their children? We have certainly discovered some amazing answers to that question! Perhaps the most common answer, though, is what people often refer to as ‘The Rule’. Many children first learn it in utero and most are reminded of it well into adulthood. “Don’t talk to strangers.” Gavin DeBecker, in his book Protecting the Gift, says ‘The Rule’ isn’t really a rule after all but a highly flexible and incomprehensible concept that only Mom and Dad really understand if even they do.

The original designers of the Child Assault Prevention curriculum knew, as so many other experts know today, that many children break ‘The Rule’ just as soon as they go out of the house! They may break it when they are with their parents or when they are alone. So, their intention in writing the line we use was to give children a chance to answer what they have been told by their parents – not to provide reinforcement for what, essentially, is an ineffective prevention strategy.

It is quite amazing to see how many cultures have embraced ‘The Rule’. CAP trainers have had interesting conversations about it with people from all over the world. Whether in a large city in New Zealand or a remote village in Kyrgyzstan, parents speak of the important lesson they have taught their children about “stranger danger”. Let’s look at this message and see why so many experts in the field of child abuse and neglect agree with its intent but find its popularity a bit mystifying.

First of all, let’s examine what we, as parents, are relying on when we tell a child not to talk to strangers. We are expecting a couple of very important things:

Children have the ability to identify who is a stranger and who is not. For little ones, this is a Herculean task. They consider the person who gives them hamburgers at McDonald’s and the person who delivers the mail to be people they know. They wave every day to the guy who lives on the corner and has the really pretty garden. In one well-known child abduction and murder case, the victim said “Hi” almost every day to the person convicted of killing her. Her parents, on the other hand, considered him a stranger. They had never had him over to their house, knew nothing about him and never spoke to him. For children, the definition of a stranger may vary greatly from that of their parents. Definitions become more nebulous as relationships begin to develop. They also begin to blur when the stranger is a woman or a well-dressed, clean-shaven man who looks “nice”; someone who does not fit the stereotypical “stranger” description.

Children will behave as we have asked even when we are not with them. From the moment our children are born, this is something we wish for. Sadly, it may be a rare occurrence as children grow up. Children like to be independent. They are curious. They are also very social beings. These characteristics combine to present a real challenge when parental instructions limit them.

In addition to the parental expectations ‘The Rule’ elicits, it also confuses children of all ages. Although children are taught not to speak to strangers, parents often instruct them to tell the “nice lady” in the grocery store how old they are. When they sit at a soccer game, they may be told to go play with an older child they have never seen before because he is the child of another soccer parent. These examples and thousands more like them present confusing information for children. They may find themselves asking, “Why do I talk to some strangers and not others?” “Why is it OK to talk to this person I have never met before but not OK to wave to the man I see every day on the way home from school?” Despite years of being raised with a hard and fast rule, children see it violated every day. The early writers of the CAP curriculum were, obviously, very aware of the confusing messages parents may give and the resulting responsibility those messages place on children. CAP does not expect children to decide who is or is not a “good stranger”. Many adults can not make that determination! Instead, our curriculum gives children strategies they can use with all strangers.

Another area of confusion around ‘The Rule’ may actually endanger children. They are taught not to speak to strangers because of the inherent danger in doing so. Yet they do it frequently and safely. Therefore, the initial message of danger may seem invalid to them. They may wonder if ‘The Rule’ isn’t an unrealistic warning all parents give, much like the one about running with scissors or swimming after a meal. If they do it enough and find it to be safe, will they drop their guard when it is most needed?

Perhaps one of the greatest criticisms of this age-old rule is the implication that strangers are the ones who hurt children and people they know are the ones with whom they are safe. Professionals in the field of law enforcement, social services and other related fields are quick to point out the fallacy of that statement. More than 85% of all abuse cases, worldwide, are known to be perpetrated by someone the child knows. Again, the CAP curriculum spends one-third of the workshop on these offenders.

As CAP people around the world implement parent workshops, the message of stranger danger is never dismissed. Clearly, there are strangers who hurt, abduct and even murder children. It is reasonable to expect children to be wary of anyone who might present a danger to them. But teaching children never to speak to anyone they do not know seriously limits their ability to communicate, and communication is how we ultimately determine our level of safety. Helping children communicate safely and with a sense of empowerment may be the best solution to this age-old problem.

Perhaps the best way to explain the importance of communication is to look at two adults riding in an elevator together. Knowing the ride will be a long one, one person often looks at the floor for what seems like an interminable time or stares at the lighted buttons. There is a strange awkwardness that occurs. But as soon as one person speaks to the other about the weather, the building, the state of the world, or any other mundane topic, that awkwardness changes. With just a simple sentence, they begin to know something about each other. The tone of a voice or a facial expression can help people sense whether they are welcomed, accepted or, perhaps, safe. Thus, even the simplest form of communication becomes an essential way to assess the environment. To take that skill away or to seriously limit it by forbidding any dialogue with a stranger does not allow children to trust their instincts or even develop the intuition they will need as adults.

Gavin DeBecker tells a story of one mother who teaches her son to “trust his instincts” while she is with him. As they eat in a fast food restaurant or walk in a mall, she tells the boy to look around and choose an adult he feels would be safe and ask him or her what time it is. The child looks around and settles on someone. When he returns from his task, his mother asks him what it was about the person he chose that made him feel safe or secure in asking. When he tells her that the man had his grandchild with him, or the woman was talking nicely to another person, she helps him process that experience and reinforces the skills she knows he will need if she is not around. Interestingly enough, she says her son seems to have very good instincts about whom he should or should not approach. Many experts agree that all humans have these instincts but often ignore them for fear of offending someone. Women, in particular, do not always listen to intuitive messages of danger. Rehearsals like this one, simple to do and fun for most children, help them evaluate their surroundings and also learn to communicate with adult strangers. Communication is especially important if children are lost or need help.

Children who are raised by ‘The Rule’ and get lost or need help are in a particularly difficult position. They have been told never to talk to strangers, yet in order to get help, they must talk to people they do not know. A recent compilation of statistics on stranger abductions indicates that “children are more likely to be kidnapped by acquaintances, people they know but who are not family members, than by complete strangers.” Yet, the fear of having a child lost in a mall and abducted by a stranger seems to be a common one for parents. In an effort to give children strategies which might help them, parents often give suggestions that are impractical or even dangerous.

Always look for a person in uniform such as a security guard. This may sound reasonable to an adult, because adults know where these officers can usually be found and what identification they may have. We know, for example, that if they work at a mall, their uniforms may indicate the name of the mall. Many children who are lost are too young to read. So, determining the accuracy of a shoulder patch is not a realistic expectation. Finding a security officer may be an equally difficult and time-consuming task.

Always go to an information booth. Again, assuming the child is young, finding such a resource may be very difficult. Many multi-leveled malls have only one such center.

Always ask a store manager. This is difficult without the ability to read name tags or understand who works in a store and who is a shopper (even adults often ask customers for help thinking they are asking store employees).

If lost in an area unfamiliar to you, look for a police station. Again, how practical is this for a 5 year old or even a 10 year old?

When children are lost, one of two things usually happens: they pick someone to help them or someone picks them. The latter choice may end up being fine but, in this situation and in most situations in their lives, it is much more empowering for them to decide which option they want. In situations such as this, the child who has been taught never to talk to strangers has fewer skills than the young man who, with his mother nearby, asked someone what time it was. He is used to talking with people he does not know and, more importantly, he has been taught to trust his instincts. Therein may lie the secret to picking a person who will help him.

There are many suggestions made to children about whom they should approach if they are lost or need help. The ones mentioned above are most common but, once again, the one suggested by Gavin DeBecker is the one NCAP feels is the most practical and may be the most effective: “Teach children that if they are ever lost, go to a woman. Why? Well, first of all, if your child chooses a woman, it is highly unlikely she will be a sexual predator. Next, a woman approached by a lost child asking for help is likely to stop whatever she is doing, commit to that child, and not rest until the child is safe. This choice may seem politically incorrect but in all cultures, at all ages and at all times in history, men are more violent than women.”

As CAP facilitators around the world conduct parent workshops, they are continually asked about strangers and how our curriculum addresses this issue. It is reassuring to know that the women who authored Strategies for Free Children did not include ‘The Rule’ as part of the children’s workshop script. Although children often mention it during the group discussion, it has never been included in the role-plays nor has the primary facilitator addressed it. It is reassuring to know that the writers of our material seemed to understand, in 1978, what recent research is now documenting: ‘The Rule’ is not the most effective way to teach our children about stranger danger.

NJ CAP is a RTC of the International Center for Assault Prevention. It partners with state, national and worldwide prevention advocates.