The concept of strangers is difficult for small children to understand. It is a particularly difficult concept for very young children who may tend to misinterpret warnings about strangers, secrets and other stranger safety issues. One of the first things that parents should do is to do away with the term, Stranger Danger. This is not a good term to use. It can make children fearful and make them think that all strangers are bad and dangerous. The truth is that most people, including most strangers, are good and well-intentioned. But some are not. It is difficult for even adults to know the difference, much less children.
A parent of a preschooler or any small child is always pleased to see his or her child approach another child on the playground and make a new friend. However, it can be a little unsettling, and potentially dangerous, when a preschooler or any child approaches an adult he doesn't know and begins conversing with that adult. Pediatric and child education experts claim that social skills and independence blossom between the ages of four and five. Even a child who was formerly shy may now feel comfortable engaging anybody and everybody he or she meets. This is a most important time to talk to children about stranger safety while being careful to choose words carefully. This is the best time to establish firm rules and explain the rules in a non-threatening way.
1. Advise your children to always check with Mommy, Daddy, or the babysitter before talking to another grown-up.
2. Teach your children that, in the event that they should get separated from you in a store, they should never leave the building with anyone. They should approach the store clerk, or a uniformed security guard and ask for help to page or locate you. For added security, teach your small child his first and last name, his parents' first and last names, and the family phone number so he can give them to the employee or uniformed security guard. Most children can begin learning these facts at age four and master them by age five.
3. Instruct your children that they should not accept anything from anyone except Mommy and Daddy or another family member, the babysitter, or the parent of another child when on a play-date. Advise your child to check with you before accepting anything.
4. Teach your children when in public places never to go where they can no longer see you. Instructing your children not to leave your sight may be confusing for them. They could wander off assuming that you can still see them.
5. Teach your children that a surprise is the only secret that it’s sometimes ok to keep. Sometimes parents use the two terms regarding keeping secrets interchangeably. That can be confusing to them. If you tell your children to keep a secret about Daddy's birthday gift or Grandma's party, you may be undermining the rule that no grown-up should ever tell you to keep a secret from your mom or dad. At this age, it is important to convey the unambiguous message that Mom and Dad have a right to know everything anyone says or does to him.
6. Don’t send your children mixed messages and undermine the safety strategies you have taught them. Practice these three principles:
· Avoid talking to a child you don't know. Instead, address the child’s parent. i Otherwise, your children may think that it's okay for strangers to talk to them.
· Avoid monogramming your children’s names on his backpacks or clothing. If a stranger addresses your kid by name, he may think he knows the person.
· Don't push your small children to give a hug to anyone -- even relatives. Children need to realize that it's okay to say "no" when they feel uncomfortable in such situations.
Additional information for helping small children understand the concept of strangers and to help them take a pro-active role to stay safe can be found in my award-winning book, What Would You Do? A Kid;s Guide to Staying Safe in a World of Strangers. The book is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Baker & Taylor, and the Follett and Ingrams catalogues. Useful resources for children, parents, and teachers can also be accessed through my book website, Melissa Harker Ridenour Books.
Picture credit: Anissa Thompson