Stranger danger! It’s something that we’ve probably all said to our kids. Whether it’s telling them not to talk to adults that they don’t know or being wary of ‘odd’ looking grown-ups, from an early age we all want our children to be very well aware of those who are ill-intentioned.
That said, sometimes it’s not necessarily the ‘dangerous’ types that children need to look out for. More than that, not every stranger is always a danger. So then, how to we help keep our kids safe without making them think that every adult is a monster?
Instead of focusing on ‘dangerous’ predators, Pattie Fitzgerald (the founder of Safely Ever After) advocates for teaching kids about “tricky people.” Fitzgerald recognizes the fact that sometimes children may talk to strangers. Your child gets separated from you at the mall and the security guard asks her if she’s okay. That’s a stranger. But, is that guard a danger? Your child knows she needs an adult’s help, and wouldn’t it be ideal if she could spot which people to talk to? Identifying tricky people helps kids to better judge who to stay away from.
The concept of “tricky people” also helps children to understand that predators aren’t always scary-looking or easy to point out by how they appear. It’s more about who they are and what they say. A tricky person might look like mum or dad and seem nice enough at first, but still wants to cause harm. On her website Fitzgerald writes, “It’s not what someone looks like, it’s what they say or want to do with a child that makes them unsafe or “tricky”.”
If you’re wondering, “Well, if tricky people look like everyone else, but are still dangerous, shouldn’t I just tell my child to stay away from everyone?” You certainly could. But, you may also want the peace of mind in knowing that your child isn’t easy to ‘trick’. Think back to your own childhood when your mum may have said something like, “Never take candy from strangers.” These strangers were predators that used candy and smile to lure kids into cars, vans and away from their parents. Basically, tricky people.
Jodie Norton, of the blog Time Well Spent, knows why we should all be teaching children about tricky people all too well. After rushing to the hospital in severe pain (she has a ruptured ovarian cyst) she left her two oldest sons (then 10 and 8 years old) outside the emergency department on a bench until a neighbor picked them up to take them to school. But, Norton had misunderstood and the neighbor took 40 minutes (she had expected something more like 5 minutes) to pick the boys up.
During their wait the boys were approached by, what Norton described as, “and adult female and two punk males.” The adults asked the boys to go into a nearby bathroom and convince one of their friends (who was supposedly hiding in there) to come out. Smartly, the boys said no. The adults kept asking, but the boys kept saying no. As the neighbor arrived, and the boys got into the car, the other adult emerged from the bathroom and drove off (in another car) with his friends.
Norton credits her sons’ understanding of tricky people with their brave and thoughtful actions. Her 10-year-old said, “Mom, I knew they were tricky people because they were asking us for help. Adults don’t ask kids for help.”
Fitzgerald notes that a tricky person isn’t always someone the child doesn’t know. Instead, “Anyone who tries to get a child to break their safety rules or hurt their body is not okay.” Norton’s sons knew that they (as children) weren’t supposed to have to help adults – it should be the other way around. That set off an internal alarm and alerted the kids that they were facing tricky people.
When it comes to staying safe, Fitzgerald recommends that parents never leave kids unsupervised and teach their children to trust their instincts. You also need to trust your own instincts – listening to that “uh-oh” feeling you might have in certain situations or when your child seems secretive. If something doesn’t seem ‘right’ to your child (or to you), say something – immediately.