Why Teaching “Stranger Danger” Doesn’t Work: An Onlife World Perspective

May 27, 2023

Recently, we have been reading articles online from some experts who say that parents should be teaching online “stranger danger” given the risks of online predation. As an online safety advocate, child safety advocate, and retired law enforcement professional, we can share with you that teaching “Stranger Danger” in the real world or online world (something we like to call the “onlife world”) does not work.

Real World:

Don’t Talk to Strangers

Traditionally, parents have taught their children to be aware and to never talk to strangers. Well, statistics have shown that the person who will likely abduct your child will not be a stranger, but rather someone who you and your child probably know, love, or trust. We often hear parents tell their children to not talk to strangers; the irony here is that the predator will not likely be a stranger, and that parents themselves often violate this rule over and over again when they tell their child to:

  • “Answer the nice man’s question!”
  • “Say hello to the nice lady.”
  • “Tell the nice man your name.”

Parents need to understand that no matter how many times they tell their child not to talk to strangers, they are still going to do so anyway in their day-to-day activities. Technically, a new store clerk, a new teacher, and a new babysitter are all, by definition, “strangers” who we guarantee your child will converse with. Soon, as a matter of repetition, your child will begin to question your position that strangers are bad people, because most strangers that they are interacting with are nice people who do not want to hurt them.

**Important teaching point**

“DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS” isn’t a rule, but a highly in-flexible and incomprehensible concept that only mom and dad understand, if they truly understand it at all.

Stranger Profiles

Children do not easily understand stranger profiles. In fact, when we teach children between the ages of 5 and 10 years about safety, we ask them the following question, “What does a stranger look like?” Some of the answers we get back from the children include:

  • Someone who wears dark clothing
  • Someone who likes to wear a hat and sunglasses
  • Someone who dresses in dirty clothing
  • Someone who stinks
  • Someone who likes to wear a mask and wig

Although all cute answers, it proves the fact that children do not understand “stranger” profiles, and that most have their own unrealistic beliefs of whom they believe their real threat will actually be.

Teaching “Stranger Danger”

A fellow child safety advocate in the United States, Gavin De Becker, has stated the following:

“If you are a parent who is trying to scare your child safe there will be two likely results; it won’t work and the parent loses credibility or, it will work and the child will be afraid.”

Mr. De Becker further goes on to say,

“Fearful Children are easily exploited by sexual predators who threaten to harm parents, pets, or the children themselves. These predators use fear to control; they almost never have any intentions of carrying out the threats. Children are so afraid of strangers that they will comply with any order. Most predators are interested in children who will cooperate because they are afraid.”

Teaching “Stranger Danger,” in our opinion, is nothing more than attempting to scare the child safe, which doesn’t work, and according to De Becker, plays right into the hands of a child predator. In fact, speak with any educator and they will tell you that when a child is frightened, learning stops. This is an important reason why we believe that when teaching children, we need to “enlighten and not frighten.” 

Every time we go to an elementary school, we often go to the school’s library and look for the book, “Berenstain Bears Stranger Danger,” and about 95% of the time, we find it. This book is dark, scary, and gothic in artistic form, and bases the content on scaring children to fear strangers. We don’t believe in banning books, but this book should be removed from all schools because the underlying message it promotes, “stranger danger,” is flawed.

The Faults of Teaching Stranger Danger:

“All Adam’s small life we taught him not to take candy from a stranger, all the things that we thought were appropriate. But we also taught him to respect authority figures unequivocally: that he should be a little gentleman. I think if we had put more emphasis on the fact that he had the right to say no, maybe the outcome of his case might have been different… …he might have been alive today if he wasn’t such a little gentleman”

-John Walsh

Besides some of the concerns that we have already mentioned, there are several other faults to teaching stranger danger:

1. The message implies that strangers are only bad people, and not someone you know.

What good is this rule when many who want to abduct or sexually exploit your child will be someone who you and the child know, love, or trust?

2. The message implies that if in trouble, don’t seek help from a stranger.

The irony here is that if the child needs help or assistance, and you or another safe person or safe place is not near, the ability to approach and ask a stranger for help is the single greatest asset your child could have.

3. The message provides peace of mind.

We have heard many parents say that they don’t need to hear our message about child safety, because they have taught their child not to talk to strangers.

4The message does not allow children to develop their own inherent skills of evaluating people and behavior.

This is a skill that is needed throughout life, but parents often teach their children to not pay attention to this important safety instinct.

Point number four needs to be emphasized. Children who are allowed to communicate with strangers are exercising their intuition, which is needed to stay safe, thus learning what FEELS comfortable and what does not. A child who can actually approach a stranger in public is less likely to be a victim than a child who is taught to never talk to strangers. This important fact is something that we nurtured in our son as he was growing up. At the age of four, when we would go to a restaurant, our son would ask for crayons and paper. If the waiter or waitress did not bring him his favorite colored crayon (orange), he would ask us to approach the waiter to get him one. Instead, we would have Brandon approach any of the waiters who he thought would help and ask them for his orange crayon. Another way we would nurture our son’s intuition was when we were out shopping at the mall. Often Brandon would ask us for the time and instead of providing him with an answer, we would encourage him to approach a man or woman who he thought could provide the time, and ask them instead, which he freely did. Again, in both circumstances, Brandon was learning to approach people whom he did not know (strangers) who he felt were safe for him to get assistance from.

Remember, from a child’s perspective, it is much easier to understand dangerous situations and actions, rather than stranger profiles. We hope we have convinced you that we need to get away from teaching “stranger danger” because it just doesn’t work.

“Teaching children to avoid all strangers isn’t useful. If children develop a fear of strangers, you’re setting up a dangerous situation. If they’re ever alone and in trouble, they’re isolated from help”

-Careful Not Fearful

Online World:

Much like the real world, the online predator, although likely not going to be someone who the child knows, loves, or trusts, will likely first creep the child and the groom the child online to break down the stranger stigma.

The secret to online safety specific to sexual predation is to teach our kids about online “situational danger” rather than “stranger danger,” but to do this we need to know and understand who the online predator is and how they operate (the grooming process) to prey upon our kids online. If both parents and their kids understand the process, then they can identify it early enough, thus hopefully not becoming another statistic.

The Online Predator Who Are They?

When we think “internet predator,” most will imagine someone who is preying upon our youth, utilizing technology, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Most internet experts agree, however, that there are, in fact, 4 categories of internet predators:

1. The Emotional/Psychological Predator: this is the internet dating predator who will make you feel good, but wound you emotionally. These guys are chameleons and emotional shape shifters who change their tactics to keep you around.

2. The Sexual/Physical Predator: This is the pedophile that preys upon our children.

3. The Reputation Predator: This is the person who will look to purposely damage your good reputation via spreading falsehoods or utilizing cyberbullying.

4. The Financial Predator: This is the person who will utilize the Internet to scam you out of your hard-earned money.

The internet and its anonymity offer a virtual place for the online predator to hunt their prey with relative freedom be it for an emotional, financial, physical, or reputational crime. Many of these predators are extremely knowledgeable in youth subject matter and current events, and they are able to speak with teens using current online lingo. They are experts at what they do, conducting research, and knowing how to build rapport quickly with their intended target. Of real importance is that these predators can be anyone – police officers, lawyers, actors, doctors, teachers, coaches, and CEO’s.

We need to move away from teaching “Stranger Danger” and start teaching “Situation Danger” when it comes to teaching our kiddos how to stay safer in today’s onlife world, especially when it comes to online predation and exploitation.  Something that we discuss in detail here

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter.

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