The general wisdom to keep our children safe from being kidnapped, along with a host of other terrible things, seems to be to teach them to not talk to strangers. I accepted this as wisdom for a long time, never really considering whether it worked or not. Until I had children, that is. After spending so much time trying to get them to be polite to people, it seemed incredibly weird to then turn around and tell them to shut their mouths and run screaming from anyone they don't recognize. And does teaching them this sort of thing actually keep them safe?
One of the real ironies of this situation is that most danger doesn't come from strangers; it comes from the people you think you can trust. I learned this firsthand as a child, after becoming a victim of sexual abuse from someone very close to me. Someone that no one thought would ever behave in such a way. I was taught not to talk to strangers when I was a child, but it wasn't strangers that harmed me. If anything, it's "strangers" who helped me the most as they have been the ones who believed in me and got me the help I needed.
Now that I'm a mother, I've had to think long and hard about how I will attempt to give my children the tools that will have the power to potentially save time from a bad situation. Mostly because of my own experiences, my husband and I have never told our boys to avoid strangers. Instead, we've taught them the following (and I know there will more topics added as they grow):
- That they own their bodies, that they can tell anyone to keep their hands away if they are uncomfortable. This includes us, and we respect their wishes when they don't want to be hugged or kissed. If they have to, they can kick or bite or scream - basically, whatever it takes to get away if needed. We've talked about their private parts and what is to remain private, no matter how curious their friends may be.
- We've taught them to talk to another adult they trust if anything happens to make them uncomfortable. I've also made sure they know that we will not be mad at them no matter what they have to say.
- We've been clear about limits when away from us. For instance, when our oldest is at the playground with his friends, he is only allowed to be in certain areas. He's not allowed to enter anyone's house without talking to us first, even if it's the house of a friend we've let him play with before.
- We've had conversations about what to do if someone approaches them and tells them we are looking for them. This is probably the closest we've come to having the "stranger" talk, but I included people they've met before, too. Basically, there is a very small set of people who would come get them if we were actually hurt, and if none of them are present, they just need to run home.
We've found as we've drilled these things into their heads that it requires far more than one sit down moment. We've brought things up as they were relevant and they were old enough to understand them. I know we'll be having these kinds of conversations the rest of their lives.
There is, unfortunately, no real way to keep our kids completely safe. Things are going to come up that we cannot foresee, no matter how hard we try. My goal is to keep the conversation going, to teach my children that they don't need to fear everything and everyone they meet, yet they should have a healthy mistrust of any situation that doesn't feel right, no matter who it is with. I hope that they will always feel they can tell me about these kinds of things and I will be on their side. If I can succeed there, I know I will have done far more good than any stranger-danger talk would have.
Ana is a restless soul who would love to keep moving around the world the rest of her life. This is probably why she married a submariner in the U.S Navy eight years ago. They have two energetic little boys, and currently live in the Bahamas. She blogs about life in paradise at Sunrise on the Water.
Pic is Ana's.