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"Don't Talk to Strangers," Worst Advice Ever?

Assertiveness and good social skills, not fear of strangers, promotes safety

As I have heard her tell it, the police officer smiled at her kindly as they all stood in the public library. "What's your name?" She was too afraid to say and it would be several more weeks before she was rescued. Who is the young girl in question? Elizabeth Smart, abducted from her home by a man who had done some repair work for her parents. Now she and her foundation teach young people around the country to shout and shout loudly if they are accosted.

"Don't talk to strangers" is still common advice—I hear it often even from parents who are professionals in the child victimization field—but if it was ever good advice, it is not now.

The parental instincts behind the advice are good. As a mother of two, I want more than anything for my children to be safe and try to protect them as best I can. That is what virtually every parent I've ever known has wanted. However, avoiding strangers and avoiding social interaction ends up sending the wrong message.

Children of today need assertiveness training. They need to be taught how to identify adults who are usually safe, such as police officers and staff members. If they get lost at the mall or a fair, they should not be afraid to talk to any stranger--they should know who to ask for help.

There is a very large scientific literature that tries to understand the mind of a criminal. I know it's kind of creepy, but if you try to put yourself in the mind of a criminal, the world looks very different. Criminals look for easy targets. Most criminals will avoid contact with large, able-bodied adults. That is why children and the elderly can be especially vulnerable to some types of crime. Criminals are looking to "win" in their assault of a target and will almost never pick a target who they believe to be stronger than they are. This is also why walking alone at night or breaking down on an isolated highway can temporarily increase your risk of victimization—criminals will exploit other vulnerabilities and weaknesses too.

Criminals are remarkably consistent in who they identify as good targets and anxiety and social isolation are two factors that can make someone seem more vulnerable. This is also one reason why re-victimization is a common problem for victims. It is so horribly unfair, but the very symptoms of post-traumatic stress and anxiety that one crime can cause can make someone more vulnerable to another criminal.

The good news is that the solution is something that is good for your children in all sorts of way. Give them practice and experience interacting in a wide variety of social contexts. Teach them assertiveness skills and how to speak up if someone tries to make them do something they do not want to do. Be sure they know how to seek help and call 911. Explain to them what the police can (and cannot) do for them if they are in trouble. Be good role models and be assertive and positive in your own interactions with the general public.

This is one of the best gifts you can offer any child.

The Data Doctor

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The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.