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Q. I'm confused. I know I'm supposed to tell my 5-year-old daughter not to talk to strangers, but I don't think she really understands exactly who a stranger is. I want my daughter to be safe from people who might hurt her. But using the line "Don't talk to strangers" seems too simplistic and confusing.
A. Today most parents tell their young children, "Don't talk to strangers." Parents do so because they fear that a stranger will abduct, molest or, worse yet, murder their children. They believe that the child will learn the "Don't Talk to Strangers" rule and this will keep her safe.
This method for protecting children is erroneous for a variety of reasons.
First, parents themselves violate this rule all the time. Parents talk to strangers as they wait their turn at the grocery checkout line, ask for directions when lost, or chat with a homeowner about his beautiful yard.
Second, who exactly is a stranger? Are the parents at your child's school strangers? Are the people who attend your religious service strangers? You probably wouldn't mind if your child talked with a stranger at church or school, but it's difficult for a young child to know which strangers are okay to talk with and which are not okay.
Third, most strangers would help your child if she were lost, hurt, or in trouble. Teaching children not to talk to any stranger is counterproductive to their safety and makes them unnecessarily fearful of people. If your child fell victim to a predator -- a person who harms children -- a kind and courageous stranger might stop the predator and do everything possible to keep your child safe.
Fourth, most people who prey on children are not strangers but people your child knows and trusts: a family friend, babysitter, coach, or relative.
Fifth, children under the age of 10 can easily fall victim to the wily ways of predators. They don't have the mental wherewithal to keep their distance and handle themselves if a predator attempts to lure them into their car with the promise of candy, kittens, or the latest video game.
Sixth, by telling your young children not to talk to strangers, you're burdening your child with keeping herself safe. It's your responsibility to keep your young children safe because they simply don't have the mental flexibility to consider many factors at once. When cute little kittens are on their mind, all other thoughts disappear.
Children over age 10 can consider more than one factor at a time. They can think, "I'm interested in the video game but seeing it might lead to an unsafe situation. I'll say 'no' to the adult." By age 10, most children have enough street smarts to mange themselves away from home.
So until your daughter is over 10 years old, don't let her go any farther from you than your briefcase, purse, or backpack -- unless she's with a person who is proven trustworthy and responsible.