If your child might be unsupervised in public, have access to the Internet, or occasionally left home alone for short periods of time, they need to know how to deal with strangers. As a responsible parent, you should provide them with clear guidance on how to interact with people they don’t know. Providing your kids with clear and simple rules to follow is the best thing you can do to minimize any risk coming from that type of interaction.
Here are 8 strategies to help you teach your children to be smart around strangers.
1. Know when to start talking about strangers
Don’t expect a preschooler to know what a stranger is, or who is safe to interact with and who isn’t. You can share basic safety rules here because preschoolers aren’t ready for conversations about dealing with strangers.
At around 4, many kids will have heard about strangers and started learning relevant safety rules. Still, they have no good judgment or impulse control so they shouldn’t be left unsupervised in public spaces.
You can start talking about behaving around strangers with school-age kids, especially since they are far more likely to be unsupervised in public. The ages between 5 to 8 are most important if you plan to provide guidance for interacting with strangers.
2. Who is a safe stranger?
The first step is to explain who a safe stranger is. Some strangers are people your kids can ask for help if they need it, for example: firefighters, police officers, teachers, principals, or librarians. By showing your kids where they can get help on their own, you also teach them responsibility for their safety.
Explain to your kids how they can recognize these authority figures, for instance by their attire. Train the ability to recognize these strangers by asking your children to point them out when you’re out in town. Tell your kids where they can go if they need help – local stores, restaurants or the homes of family friends in your neighborhood.
3. Here’s how you can talk to your kids about strangers
You should discuss the concept of strangers as well. Tell your kids that a stranger is any person they don’t know. Emphasize that a stranger is not necessarily a bad person. It’s smart to explain the differences between people who might be interacting with your children: those your kids know and who are safe, those your kids know just a little, or don’t know at all. Talking about strangers doesn’t need to become a taboo topic.
4. Don’t scare your kids
Don’t frighten your kids by telling them they might be abducted – that’s just not going to work to your favor. You won’t make them street smart this way.
Some parents think sensational statements will drive the message home and warn their children saying that a stranger might take them away or they might never see their parents again. But that will only frighten your kids, while the conversation you should be having is about empowerment not fear.
That’s why you should stick to the basics and remain calm. Present your children with a list of do’s and don’ts in their interactions with strangers. If your children ask why they can’t go anywhere with a stranger, say something like “because I want to know where you are, that you’re safe and that you are following the rules”.
5. Define some rules
Now that you defined what a stranger is, your children are ready to get some rules and guidelines. If you’re dealing with an older preschooler, you can give them a game plan to follow if you ever become separated in the public space.
For instance, you can say something along these lines: “If you lose me in the grocery store, you should go where we pay for things and tell them that you’re lost, tell them your name, and not move from that spot until mommy comes to get you”. At this point, you should also tell your child that if they are approached by a stranger, they should go straight to the person taking care of them.
If you’re talking to an older child, you can tell them that it is okay to say hello to a stranger in particular situations, but your kids don’t have to talk to any strangers, and they definitely shouldn’t talk to them if you are not around. It’s okay for a child to say “I am not supposed to talk to strangers”. Make it clear that they are also not to go anywhere with a person they don’t know.
6. Explain your reasoning
When giving out rules and guidelines, you should explain your reasoning to children. If you don’t, kids are far more likely to break them. Calmly explain to your children that some strangers are not nice and might want to hurt them.
Emphasize that most people are good, but if you don’t know someone, you just don’t know that. These rules are here to help your child interact only with the good people and avoid the bad ones.
7. Don’t forget about strangers on the internet
If your kids have access to a computer connected to the internet, make sure to locate all devices in a common area where you can monitor what they are up to. Young children should not use chat forums or other platforms for communication.
Set some ground rules for internet use as well. Tell your kids never to give any personal information, fill out forms online, or answer questions. Online safety is a real issue, not only because of the bad people who lurk online, but also because the internet is not a safe space in the first place.
If you fail to explain to your kids how to safely surf the Internet, they might land on dangerous websites, meet bad people or infect your devices with viruses.
8. Repeat the conversation
It takes time for children to learn something and behaving in public places or interacting with strangers is no exception. Underscore your message at the right moments, for instance before trip to a public place or on vacation. Whenever your children might be around strangers, you can repeat your main points and remind your kids how to behave if a stranger approaches them. But don’t overdo it, you don’t want to frighten your kids about the world out there.
Teaching your children how to be smart around strangers is essential if you want to ensure they are not only able to properly interact with people, but also avoid all the risk that public spaces pose to young humans who aren’t yet able to tell who is good and who is bad.
Follow these 8 strategies and you’ll be on your way to empowering your kids, showing them how to manage interactions with strangers and how to keep themselves safe – even when you’re not around.