It seems like a lot of strangers have been offering my five-year-old daughter candy lately. Given her age, she’s always accompanied by an adult, but I’ve nonetheless used these occasions to discuss “stranger danger” with her. I think it’s important to teach young kids not to share personal information. It’s unfortunate that they need to learn they can’t trust everybody, but that’s life. But teaching an extroverted kid not to talk to strangers has been tougher than I expected. Anna talks to people on public transit, in stores, at the park and around the neighbourhood.
Of course, I probably needn’t worry. Strangers aren’t really the problem. An overwhelming percentage of reported child abductions or assaults involve people that kids know directly. According to Statistics Canada, 44 percent are abducted by acquaintances, and 38 percent by a family member. As for stranger abductions? They only make up 12 percent of cases. But how do we teach this to our kids without causing unnecessary fear and anxiety? What signs or behaviours, specifically, should we teach them to be wary of?
Hamilton, Ont. police are now using the phrase “tricky people,” which focuses on certain behaviours that could be considered warning signs. Hamilton Police Sgt. Barry Mungar says “tricky” behaviours that kids should be aware of include: kids being asked to keep a secret, an adult asking a kid for help (possibly by tracking down a lost pet), or an adult faking an emergency and saying “You have to come with me right now,” among others. Currently, neither the public nor Catholic school boards in Hamilton use the phrase “tricky people,” but there is evidence that it’s gaining traction across North America.
As is the case with many kids, the people who posed the most threat, and caused the most harm to me, often lived under the same roof: my mother and stepfather, primarily. Therefore, as an adult, I appreciate that the focus doesn’t fall solely on strangers. As a parent, I want my daughter to be able to alert me to questionable behaviour.
But I’m not sold on the term “tricky people.” To me, it seems like just another stand-in word—like saying “bad guys,” but even more watered down. I think we can educate kids without meaningless labels and terms.
I think the language we need already exists, and the emphasis needs to be on teaching kids what to watch out for (including some of the warning signs), and on having a trusted adult to confide in. Why teach a kid to say “tricky people” when they could just say “people” and explain the behaviours? Dropping “strangers” from the conversation is something I support, but I don’t know that there needs to be a new phrase. Instead of “tricky people,” let’s just focus on the warning signs.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a five-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.