Stranger Danger vs. Social Skills

handshakeParents of adolescents and college age kids tell me that their kids have a hard time with the basic social interactions of life: ordering food in a restaurant, asking for help finding something in a store, making a phone call to register for a class, interviewing for college or for a job. They try to avoid those encounters whenever they can, and ask for parents’ help when it’s unavoidable. (And likely miss out on opportunities because of the anxiety related to this.) The parents wonder how to teach their kids to talk to people.

Here’s the problem… those same parents often spent their children’s early years teaching them not to do this. They spent years saying “don’t talk to strangers” and are now saying “would you please talk to that stranger??”

When we talk about stranger danger, what are parents afraid of? The “stereotypical” kidnapping where a stranger grabs a child and disappears with them. Does that happen? Yes, there are around 100 – 200 cases of that per year in the United States and yes, that’s a tragedy when it happens. But there are over 70 million children living in the United States! The chance that a stranger will kidnap your child is very VERY small. The chance that your child will grow up into an adult who needs to regularly interact with other people, some of whom will be strangers to them – well, pretty much guaranteed.

The chance that the stranger you encounter is a creepy, dangerous person? Pretty darn small. The chance that they are a perfectly lovely person who could have a pleasant neighborly conversation with you and your child? Pretty darn high.

So, I would encourage us to switch around our approach to assuming that most people are safe to talk to, teaching social skills for basic encounters, and, as they get older, teaching them safety limits.

  • When we have a baby or toddler, we can model smiling, chatting, waving hello with store clerks, waitresses, bus drivers, and people we pass on the street. Our children follow our social cues here and will do the same. However, if we’re waiting for a bus or walking through a “dodgier” neighborhood, we might not engage with anyone around us. Again, our kids will follow our cues. We don’t have to act fearful of the strangers or tell our child to be scared of them – we can just have a few more social barriers up.
  • When we have a preschooler, we can start talking about social skills and when/who to engage. For example:
    • it’s OK to talk to strangers when mom or dad are right there with you, but if your parents aren’t there, don’t talk to the stranger. (There may be exceptions to that rule, like “it’s OK to talk to all the grown-ups at preschool” or “it’s OK to talk to all the grown-ups at church, even if I’m not there with you.”)
    • It’s OK to talk to people who are working in places we go (the librarian, the lifeguard at the pool, and so on.) But, we should keep our conversations with them short, as they have work to do, and may not have time to hear all the details of our day.
    • If your parents aren’t talking with the people around them, probably you shouldn’t either. Later on, you can ask your parents to explain.
    • If an adult makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to speak to them. Mama or Daddy can help you handle the situation.
  • When we have children who are old enough to be out and about without us nearby, then is the time we introduce the idea that all people are not safe, and we teach guidelines to help keep them safe.
    • Again, it’s OK to speak to adults who are working in a place, especially if you need help with something.
    • It’s OK to nod and say hello to people as you pass, but if a stranger tries to engage you in a conversation, move away from them, and to where there are safe adults.
    • If a strange adult says they need help (with directions, with finding a lost puppy, etc.) then go to a trusted adult and let them know.
    • Never go anywhere with a strange adult unless a trusted adult has explicitly explained this to you in advance.
    • Be sure your children know their full names, their parents’ phone numbers, and where the trusted adults are near their home.
  • Also, as kids get older, ask them to use their social skills. If they’re trying to find something in a store or library, teach them to ask for help. If there’s something they need to make a phone call to do, help coach them through it, rather than doing it for them. If they will be doing an interview for college or a job, role play it with them ahead of time.

For more info on teaching about ‘stranger danger’, click here.

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