Stranger Danger – Why It Doesn’t Work and Endangers Children

Stranger Danger – Why It Doesn’t Work and Endangers Children

Stranger danger education is everywhere. It is in our schools, in parenting magazines and blogs. It is touted by law enforcement officials as well as the evening news. When a child is kidnapped or abused the knee-jerk reaction is as predictable as it is useless: “we need more stranger danger education!” Unfortunately stranger danger does not work. It is actually dangerous to kids and I think it should be abolished.

Let’s take a look at what the classic stranger danger curriculum says. In a nutshell, it tells kids not to talk to strangers. Apparently this is supposed to protect children from being kidnapped or abused. Some ill-conceived programs have even gone to the lengths of using flashcards to “teach” kids who strangers are.

Kids who have gone through stranger danger education then, are left with the following truisms:

1. Strangers are dangerous
2. Non-strangers are less dangerous if not outright safe
3. They, as kids, are equipped to determine whether someone is a stranger or not

Unfortunately, all of these “truisms” are actually false.

Strangers are Responsible for a Very Small Portion of Offenses Against Children. Let’s start with the proposition that strangers are actually dangerous to kids. This proposition would only hold water if the number of kidnappings and sexual abuse cases by strangers constituted a significant portion of total such cases. In fact it does not. A study of almost 60,000 kidnapping cases by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention revealed that only less than 0.2% of the cases involved strangers. The statistics for sexual abuse cases are equally slanted toward non-strangers.

Upon reflection, this makes perfect sense. The best way for a child predator to gain easy access to a child victim (and to prevent reporting of the abuse) is to ingratiate themselves to the child and his/her family. In that way, by the time the child predator strikes, he is no longer a stranger but a trusted friend.

Stranger Danger Creates False Sense of Security. Any parent knows how literal-minded their children are and it is this literal-mindedness that makes stranger danger education so dangerous for kids. By over-reinforcing the dangers posed by strangers, stranger danger education gives kids a very dangerous message:that non-strangers are safe!. As stated earlier, almost every child predator tries to be a trusted friend to their victims and their families both to facilitate abuse and to prevent reporting. By encouraging kids to lower their guards to non-strangers, stranger danger education is playing right into the hands of these predators.

Kids Cannot Tell Who is a Stranger. Who is a “stranger” anyway? One popular stranger danger program defines “strangers” as “a person you have never met.” I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard time applying that definition in my life. What does “met” mean? Do I have to be formally introduced in order to have “met” someone? What if I wave to them every day and they look familiar but I don’t know their name? What if a member of my family knows them? If this definition is so difficult for adults to apply, how can we expect kids to use it to keep themselves safe?

A Better Way. Instead of stranger danger education, I recommend teaching kids about Situational Awareness and predator Danger Sign Recognition. For more about these strategies and tools, please visit my website.