It was the beginning of April, and my husband and I brought our son to a playground within our neighborhood park. My husband chased our toddler around the play equipment while I sat down on a bench to catch up on some emails on my phone.
Just then, a little sprout of a girl, probably not more than five, came right up to me and helped herself onto the seat next to me. Maybe it was my French braided pigtails that put her at ease. Whatever it was, Kate* began to tell me her entire life story. Within roughly two minutes, I knew where she went to school, the general area where she lived, that she had a sister who played softball and that her neighbors were also at the playground. She also told me that she was at the playground alone because her dad was helping to coach her sister’s softball team across the park, that she liked my earrings, and that I should check out the earring selection at Marshall’s. She was cute as a button and smart as a whip – so much so that it didn’t even occur to me that I had unwittingly just become the dreaded stranger danger every parent warns their children about.
Within five minutes, her older sister came running across the park. “Kate, you know you shouldn’t talk to people we don’t know! Stranger danger!” she said, pulling her little sister away. Though part of me was disappointed that our conversation was cut short (and that I was the boogeyman in that situation), I totally understood. As parents, we want to keep our children safe at all costs. But the whole situation got me thinking – maybe it’s time that we evaluate our views on stranger danger. Maybe it’s time that we teach our children a nuanced approach. At least as nuanced as a kid can handle.
Instead of telling kids not to talk to any strangers, let’s teach them HOW to talk to strangers, if necessary. If a child finds themselves lost or in an emergency situation without their parents, for example, they should first seek out uniformed strangers. Police officers, firefighters or paramedics are often trained to handle situations just like this. If a uniformed stranger isn’t available, look for strangers with kids themselves, specifically moms and grandparents. And when talking to strangers, keep the information on a need-to-know basis. Only tell the stranger what could help them to find mom or dad, like a phone number or their name or what kind of car they drive.
Practice Makes Perfect
That being said, I think it is so important to teach our kids how to appropriately talk to people they don’t know within a controlled environment. The next time your old friend from high school wants to meet up for coffee, encourage your child to engage in some small talk without your assistance. Not only will this strengthen their verbal and cognitive skills, it will give them a safe environment in which to become comfortable talking with someone they don’t know in case of an emergency.
Did Kate overshare with me at the playground that day? Definitely. But the flip side is that if she is ever in a situation where she is separated from her parents, she’s well prepared to find her way home with the help of a benevolent stranger. Striking the balance between indiscriminate stranger danger and indiscriminate social butterfly should be the goal for all kids.
*name was changed