- Media messages about missing children prompted fear in parents, who then took a protective, vigilant stance.
- Gen Z and Millennials, taught not to talk to strangers, grew up without learning how to interact with strangers at all.
- As a social species, we need to interact cooperatively with others not only to get things done, but also to maintain our emotional well-being.
In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared while walking to his school bus stop in lower Manhattan. And then, in 1981 with the disappearance of Adam Walsh, the nation froze. Missing children’s photos appeared on milk cartons for kids to look at while they ate bowls of breakfast cereal. Restrictions around what children could and could not do changed.
Even before those unnerving and highly publicized events, I wrote a short booklet, “Ice Cream Isn’t Always Good,” based on a local news report of a strange man in a blue car near my stepchildren’s elementary school. The booklet was distributed nationally by police and schools, and to parents. It subsequently became the book Never Say Yes to a Stranger: What Your Child Must Know to Stay Safe and has been in print in different formats for decades. The stories and messages helped parents and educators teach young children the difference between strangers who are good and would be helpful and those who might harm them. It was designed to provide the tools young kids need to stay safe when they were on their own, unsupervised.
The media messages surrounding missing children, at times misleading for failing to differentiate between children who had run away and those who were taken, panicked parents who then extensively curtailed children’s freedoms. Parents started hovering and have remained in an overly protective, vigilant stance.
Being Overly Cautious Makes Us Miss Out on Relationships
In her book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses how a movement spun out of control and how micromanaging our children has affected young adults today and “led them to be cautious and as a result [they] are missing out how to form relationships that are key to our individual happiness.”
Her chapter, “Start Talking to Strangers,” opens with the quote, “Don’t talk to strangers," which is attrbuted to “Everyone.” That was such a mistake, she writes:
“Accordingly, most Millennial and Gen Z children were raised with the mantra ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’ This meant have no verbal interaction with strangers and of course don't go off with them anywhere, either. But it morphed into making no eye contact with strangers, and having no little chitchats with strangers on sidewalks or in stores. Then it became ignoring strangers entirely. A lot of kids grew up not just afraid of the very idea of strangers, but literally not knowing how to interact with them. As a result, kids didn’t learn to navigate the social cues given off by someone they didn’t already know. And then they graduated from high school and went out into the world, where their life was full of . . . strangers.
“Here comes what may be the most obvious point I’ll make in this book: we’re all strangers to each other at first. Then, somehow, we become acquaintances with some of those (former) strangers, and some of those acquaintances turn into neighbors, friends, colleagues, mentors, lovers, partners, and fam. Research from the fields of evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology shows that we are a highly social species who must interact cooperatively and kindly with one another not just to get stuff done but to be emotionally well. Research even shows that interactions with people who will forever remain strangers to us (i.e., the person on the street who passes by) also have positive mental health effects on us.”
Talk to a Stranger
On a bus ride in New York City several years ago I overheard two ladies discussing a restaurant I was interested in knowing about. So rather than eavesdrop, I asked them to tell me about it. We began chatting. Coincidentally, one of the women lives near me and has become a close friend. Pre-pandemic we did many things together in the city and have become emotional support for each other. As soon as the CDC declares it safe to resume contact with those outside our pods, I am sure we will resume our face-to-face friendship—one born completely out of talking to a stranger.
The pandemic has underscored that whatever our age, we need face-to-face connection—not pages of social media “friends,” but people we can look in the eye, and, soon, hug again. If you were raised under the mantra of “Don’t talk to strangers,” forming those relationships may be uncomfortable at first, but as Lythcott-Haims reminds readers, “not only is it okay to talk to strangers, you want to. You gotta. Let’s go.”
Lythcott-Haims, Julie. (2021) Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. New York: Henry Holt and Company.