The Danger in "Stranger Danger"

I have an embarrassing confession to make. When my kids were little, I taught them "stranger danger". It's quick. It's simple. It's easy to remember. It RHYMES, for heaven's sake! It's adorable! The problem, of course, is that it really doesn't do squat in the way of keeping kids safe. There is, in fact, a whole lot wrong with "stranger danger".

Don't get me wrong; it's important that kids understand they shouldn't hop into the windowless white van with that creepy guy who says he's got free candy in there. (If he says there's puppies in there, I may consider getting in the van...I really like animals...) We certainly need to have those conversations with our children. The biggest problem with the whole stranger danger concept is that your kids (and we adult women, too) are far, far more likely to be victimized by someone that they know. And no one teaches us how to watch out for the people we know.

As adult women who grew up with the concept that strangers are dangerous, it implies that our acquaintances are automatically "safe". We wind up giving people a whole level of trust that they really haven't earned, based simply on the fact that we've met them before and know their names. For adult women, around 85% of sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances.

One in four girls and one in six boys are molested before the age of 18. According to the Department of Justice, only about 10% of those cases are committed by strangers. The messages we're giving kids aren't even realistic. We tell them "Don't talk to strangers". When's the last time you were checking out at the grocery store, the cashier said, "Did you find everything okay?" and you responded by staring mutely at her in abject horror? WE ALL TALK TO STRANGERS. And your kids are going to talk to strangers too. We need to teach them HOW to do it, and how to determine safe strangers from unsafe strangers.

The most important thing you can do to help your kids stay safe is to teach them about the importance of boundaries and how to enforce them. This means, first of all, lots and lots of ongoing conversations. Please see the related post "Talking About Sex and Your Body" for some pointers on having those conversations. And remember that teaching your kids about body boundaries means you can't then turn around and insist that they sit on Santa's lap or kiss Uncle Fred when they've already expressed that they don't want to. Teach them to offer alternatives, such as "I don't want to hug you, but I'd be happy to shake hands." And teach them that someone who doesn't respect their boundaries is someone that they need to stay away from.

Teach them that "no" is a complete sentence. Teach them to say, "I don't like that. You need to stop." Teach them to say, "I'm not okay with that." Teach them to say, "If you don't stop, I'm going to tell." Let them know that they can tell you anytime something happens that they are not comfortable with, and that you will believe them and you will help them.

The average child molester often grooms not only the child, but the child's parents. They spend a great deal of time building a reputation as an "all-around great guy". Sure, it would make our lives so much simpler if child molesters really were always creepy guys in rumpled raincoats, but that's not the reality. They're a parent or step-parent, a clergy person, a next-door neighbor, a teacher, a pediatrician, a coach, a law enforcement officer....

He grooms the child by developing a friendship, creating a bond, preparing them for sexual assault; and he often starts by choosing the parents. He pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior to test the parents and see if they will allow him to take advantage. He literally seduces the parents into allowing him access to the child. By charming the adults, he's actually created a protection for himself; if the child discloses abuse, it's likely to be disbelieved.

Teach your children that they get to be in complete control of who is allowed to touch them and who is not; they get to be in charge of what they are comfortable with and what they are not. This means if they don't like tickling, it isn't cute or funny to keep tickling them; it's teaching them that their body boundaries can be disregarded.

Below I've listed links to a couple of books that you may find really helpful. Please note that these are affiliate links, which means I may earn a commission on them. Be aware, though, that I will never recommend anything to you that I don't totally love myself! Both of these books are on my own bookshelf, and I recommend them to others frequently.

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