Q: We have a toddler and are wondering: What is a good age to have the “stranger danger” talk and, in this day, what is a good way to go about it?
What an important question you ask. The more important question, however, is not actually at what age should the lesson start, but rather HOW do you protect your child from the dangers lurk out in the big world.
Parents mistakenly believe that we should teach our children to be weary of strangers. Leaving the lesson there is a mistake. Many of us have offered Safety Seminars over the years, myself included. (Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After, Inc. still offers them, for parents and for children. And I highly recommend her work.) In those seminars we explain that the people who perpetrate bad acts against children are not usually strangers. Those people are ones who are familiar to your child and even to you. Your child knows that person and likely trusts him because he is a known person. Think about clergy or coaches or teachers, even neighbors or extended family members. You certainly wouldn’t leave your child alone with a stranger. But you might do so with someone whom you and your child know. And the bad things that happen to kids happen in private; the perpetrator is alone with the child.
The lesson starts when the child is very, and I mean very young … before he is a year old. When the child is in the bath, we talk about the parts of his body that are private. Does he know what private means? Not yet. But over time, he sure will with your reinforcement, over and over. As he becomes a toddler and his speech and language grow, we explain that the parts of his body that are covered by a bathing suit are his private parts. And let me just add that we name these parts using their real, anatomical names. Please no “pee pee” or “weenie” or “front tushie” (as one client embarrassedly shared). The only people, we explain, to whom the child can show is private parts are Mommy, Daddy, Nannie and the doctor. (Everyone’s list will differ slightly.)
The lesson grows by adding that nobody can touch your private body, and you cannot touch anyone else’s private body. That becomes a family rule.
Strangers are a different topic. But teaching your child that we do not talk to people we do not know doesn’t do it. I talk to people I don’t know all the time—in line at the post office, walking in my neighborhood, choosing apples at Gelson’s. A better lesson to teach is that when you are with Mommy or Daddy you can talk to whomever you want.
Pattie Fitzgerald whom I referenced above, teaches kids about “tricky people.” She helps children to understand that sometimes there might be a person who makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe that person asks you a question you don’t want to answer or suggests that you do something you don’t want to do. THAT is a tricky person because he makes you feel funny inside. So, rather using teaching stranger danger, we teach the child to pay attention to his own feelings about a person. He is his own alarm clock, and he needs to tell a parent or care giver.
Sometimes that can be awkward in that you want your “slow-to-warm-up” to say hi to someone, and he refuses. In teaching him to pay attention to his radar, you will need go along with him for now. You can even say to your friend, “I am teaching Steven that he doesn’t have to talk to someone he doesn’t know.”
By trying to answer this critical question and the others to which it leads in one column is impossible. It is a topic with many important branches and lessons. You will add these as your child grows. And remember, little kids, little problems.
I applaud your question, and I urge you to read up on the topic and perhaps find yourself a seminar to attend.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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