Of all the public service campaigns embraced throughout the years, that which seems to have made one of the more lasting impressions is also among the more misguided: Don't talk to strangers. The phrase has become a sort of unquestioned edict passed from parent to child, from one generation to the next, billed as a necessary way to keep kids safe.
But should we really be teaching children that there's a good reason to fear people they don't know? Is the best response to an invitation from a stranger truly no response at all?
Adults, of course, know that not all strangers are bad. A typical given day might include encounters with any number of people we've never seen before and will never see again. Some of those encounters may even be pleasant. Our kids might witness some of these encounters, and are inevitably left to wonder: Why are some strangers okay while others aren't?
The question parents should be asking themselves, meanwhile, is how to help children distinguish between the two—those strangers who are OK and those who aren't—without teaching them to judge people on how they look, and without teaching them to make decisions from a place of fear.
The answer, of course, is to stop issuing blanket statements that leave no room for judgment or circumstance. We may think we're teaching safety when we tell them to disregard the unfamiliar, when we tell them to turn away from strangers, but what we're teaching is intolerance and indifference. In turn, we risk inadvertently raising a culture of children who are too fearful, too disinterested, or just too rude to engage in conversation with someone they don't know. We risk raising children who lack curiosity about others and who fear the unfamiliar. Most critically, though, is that we also risk raising children who are unsure whether, and how, to trust their own instincts, which can be an essential quality in keeping them from harm.
It's important to keep children safe, obviously, and in many cases it may be more prudent to be overcautious than under cautious. There are some bad strangers out there. But if you look at the numbers, they don't quite make the case for giving all of them the cold shoulder. Statistics show that the smallest percentage of abductions occur at the hands of a person who is a stranger to the child. That is, in most cases, a child knows his or her kidnapper.
What's more, studies also show that children naturally develop the ability to discriminate between people they can trust and those they may not feel as comfortable doing with. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that kids as young as three have the ability to evaluate trustworthiness accurately, and can do so as well as adults by the time they are seven. There's a value in helping children develop this talent on their own, rather than steamrolling over it with catchall rules like not talking to strangers. In fact, the best way to keep kids safe is to teach them how to use their own instincts in determining who feels safe and who doesn't, and encouraging them to have faith in their own abilities. In other words, it's not to teach them to distrust others, but to learn to trust themselves.
How to do this: Present certain scenarios and ask your child to act them out. If a stranger at the playground asked you whether you preferred the jungle gym or the slide, what would you say? If you're playing in the front yard and a stranger asks you to follow her to go look at some kittens, what would you do? Help them figure out the best response in each scenario.
Then talk with them about what it's like to feel safe, and what they should do when they don't. More than rules, children will respond to—and, most importantly, remember to act on—feelings. When you don't feel safe, walk or run away. If a situation doesn't seem right, leave it. If a person doesn't feel like someone you should be talking to, don't. Help them understand the connection between feelings and reality by making an effort to articulate your own feelings. When you want your child to help set the dinner table, don't say, "Because I said so." Better to say, "because I'm tired and would like your help" or "because when you ignore me, you make me feel disrespected and sad." Help them see the link between how we feel and how we act.
It's as important to help a child connect with his own feelings as it is to help teach him to respect and value others.' This, more than any single rule, is what will lay the groundwork for raising a child who can honor his instincts and keep himself safe—and be polite to strangers at the same time.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com