How do you teach your kids about stranger danger?

A nearby child abduction and murder trial has Tracy thinking hard about how to teach her kids to protect themselves.

By Tracy Chappell
How do you teach your kids about stranger danger?

I’m not sure if the rest of the country is following the trial of Michael Rafferty, the man accused of abducting and killing eight-year-old Tori Stafford in Woodstock, Ont. Cases of child abduction have such a huge, heart-wrenching affect on their own communities, but also the community of parents everywhere. It’s hard enough to hear that a child has been taken and imagine a parent’s hysteria as your mind takes you to the darkest places imaginable. Then, inevitably, we ask ourselves what if, in some horrific shift of space and time, that was our child? We (shamefully?) feel grateful that it’s not. Then we realize that the abducted child’s parent also felt that way once.
I wish I didn’t know the things I do about the end of this sweet girl’s life, but at the same time, it’s hard to not listen. And cry. And wonder endlessly, pointlessly why things like this happen. The other thought that weighs on me with urgency: how I can make sure this never, ever happens to my kids.
In the early years of parenting, many of us don’t have to worry about this so much. When our kids are not with us, they are at daycare or with a trusted caregiver, a place where we drop them off and pick them up ourselves. There’s no confusion, no interaction with strangers, no unknown dangers. But in the school years, pockets of time emerge — from school to bus, for example, or playtime before or after school. And, as we’ve learned, it only takes a moment.
I’ve talked to the kids about “stranger danger” in ways that I thought were age appropriate. Avery will recite that it’s OK to say hello to strangers if you’re with your mom. She also knows not to go anywhere without me or her dad, unless we tell her it’s OK. I think at three and a half, that’s good enough because she’s still in that cocoon of being exactly where we left her until we pick her up.
But I’ve taken this opportunity to have more in depth conversations with Anna, my six year old. I’ve never wanted to scare the crap out of her, but now, I kind of do. And it’s times like this that I really appreciate how much she loves to talk and that she asks a million questions. She doesn’t shy away from these discussions, which makes talking about this much easier.
We’ve discussed the exact handful of people she’s allowed to go with in an emergency (ie: we haven’t organized it ahead of time), and I quiz her about other familiar people and if it would be OK to leave school with them. I’ve asked her what she would do if someone asked her if she wanted to come and see some kittens in their car. “I’d go peek in the window, but I’d never go in their car,” she told me, quite proud of herself. Eeek! So I had to explain some of the things bad people say to lead kids away from safe people and safe places, and that she’s never to talk to or go anywhere with people she doesn’t know. Period. Asking scenario-based questions is the best way to get a glimpse into what she’s thinking. Sometimes, kids’ perception of things can really surprise us.
I think about Tori Stafford, and at what moment she realized she’d made a horrible mistake, so I ask Anna what she would do if anyone ever tried to touch her or take her. I know that sometimes kids find themselves in situations that are wrong, but knowing that they’re wrong doesn’t help them understand what to do. “Run away,” she replies. I tell her that adults are strong, and they could pick her up easily and her job is to make the biggest scene she possibly can. Scream at the top of her lungs. Kick as hard as she can. Scratch. Do all the things I tell her not to do at home. Make sure people hear and see that she’s in trouble.
I know this will be an ongoing dialogue over the years, and will venture into other territories I have a harder time broaching right now. But I feel at least a little relieved that we are building a foundation for the conversations to come.
I’d love to hear how you’re handling this topic at your house. How do you discuss it with your kids and equip them with the knowledge and skills to protect themselves? Are they open to the conversation? Do you talk to them about actual events related to child abduction, or keep it hypothetical? 

Photo by pondspider via Flickr

This article was originally published on Apr 10, 2012

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