Talking to Strangers
The truth about how to really make your kids safe from kidnappings.
The evening after McGruff the Crime Hound came to my son’s pre-school — while I was cleaning up the living room and my son and my husband were on the couch, both enthralled with their tiny (wait for it …) hand-held devices (still sounds bad) — I asked my son if McGruff told him to never talk to strangers.
My son nodded his head in agreement, or in disagreement, or possibly he was just nodding in motion to the mean bird that he was slinging across outer space at egg-stealing pigs. I rolled my eyes in disbelief. He is already a man, I thought.
I continued folding blankets, having bitter thoughts of the male species and their inability to hear the specific range of decibels that contain the female voice, when my husband put down the newspaper (read: Blackberry) and looked over at my son and said, “No. McGruff teaches how to prevent forest fires, right?” Was my husband listening to me talk? I was impressed.
“No, that’s Smokey the Grizzly,” I replied.
“Bear,” my son corrected, also apparently listening. Maybe men only listen for mistakes.
No matter what animal was doing what, I was still left wanting to know if McGruff had inoculated my son against getting kidnapped by a leery-eyed stranger with a shaggy 1970’s beard, offering candy, a puppy, and a ride in his windowless van. These “Sterotypical Kidnappings,” as they are called by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, are the ones of our vivid imaginations and our deepest fears. They make our hearts pound when our children are out of our sight for a second at the grocery store, or even alone in the front yards of our very own houses in our very safe neighborhoods. We imagine the world like a police training simulation video: Behind every bush or car there may be a bad guy waiting to pounce. Did McGruff give my son the armor to survive in the wild streets of America? (That he has never been allowed to roam.)
After a little Internet research, I believe McGruff talked more about bullying than not talking to strangers, possibly because the chances of being kidnapped are so much smaller than being bullied. In fact, the likelihood of your kid being the victim of a “stereotypical kidnapping” is so infinitesimally small that you would have to leave your kid outside (buckled into his car seat and out of direct sunlight) for 750,000 years before he would be taken. At least, that is according to the math of Warwick Cairns, author of “How to Live Dangerously: The Hazards of Helmets, the Benefits of Bacteria, and the Risks of Living Too Safe.” (In Florida, the statistics may be more like 300,000 years, but still …)
I know you must not think that is true because of the thousands of pictures of missing kids at the entrance of every Walmart, but the majority of those kids are runaways or were kidnapped by a parent or a relative in a custody dispute.
And while these statistics may help the rational side of our brains feel better, the other half, using the same thought process that sends millions of us out to buy lottery tickets each week, thinks: but it could happen to me.
So what do we tell our kids to keep them safe and to calm our worried minds? My best friend told me she told her kid, “Never talk to strangers, unless you need help, and then find a mom and ask her to help you.”
Never talk to strangers unless…
It was better than just never talk to strangers, but not the perfect solution. I do want my kids to be able to call out to a stranger if they need help. Most strangers are good. Plus it is annoying when you are trying to introduce your child to someone and they refuse to talk to them because they are a stranger. Trying to explain to your kid when a stranger is a stranger, and when they are not, is pretty confusing.
Then I read a great solution in the book “Free-Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy. The book, for those of us who lean towards anxiety brain, is a sweet mantra of, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” I could feel the tension that I have held since the day my first son was born run out of my shoulder and neck as I read. I have been clenching my teeth for five years wanting to know, in our dangerous world, will my kids survive? Well, Skenazy says, statistically speaking, “Yes!”
In the book, psychotherapist Michelle Maidenberg said, tell your kids to NEVER GO OFF WITH STRANGERS. They can talk to strangers, and they can ask for help if they need it, but don’t ever go anywhere with a stranger. One of the other points that Skenazy emphasized in the book was to tell your children that adults will generally not go up to a kid and ask for help. Normal adults don’t need assistance to find their dog, or help smoking their candy cigarettes.
Oh, and one other thing, tell them: It is OK to run.
Finally, I have my own plan on how to teach my son to be safe, and that is good since it is apparent that I will never know if Smokey the Crime Dog did his job or not.
Now, I just have to figure out how to make my son listen.
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