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Protecting the Gift

July 24, 2012

No single maxim about safety has permeated our society as completely as the one spoken millions of times each year to millions of kids: Never Talk to Strangers. Perhaps because it seemed reasonable when we first heard it, this rule isn’t often questioned. Let’s question it now, along with the other culturally entrenched rules intended to keep children safe. We already know they don’t work, so we can do this with an open mind.

“NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS”

Somehow we believe that if we teach this to our children, if we’re certain they fully understand it, if they get it right every time we quiz them on it–if all that happens, they’ll be safe. With some urgency, we implore, “You understand, right? Never talk to strangers. Tell Daddy again, okay?” In the world we cannot control, we can control at least one thing: our children will know The Rule. Really, however, all we can be certain of is that they she can recite it.

Children are taught The Rule when young, but the very week it’s handed down, they see their parents violate it over and over, and they are themselves encouraged to violate it: “Say hello to the nice lady,” “Answer the man’s question,” “Tell Mr. Evans your name.” What children actually learn is: Never talk to strangers unless they are wearing a clown suit or a uniform, or they work at the bank, or they’re registering us to vote, or they’re seeking signatures on a petition, or they’re handing out tasty samples, or they’re nice.

Never Talk to Strangers, it turns out, isn’t a rule after all, but a highly flexible and incomprehensible concept that only Mom and Dad really understand-if even they do.

The list of violently inclined predatory criminals defeated because a parent told his or her child not to talk to strangers isn’t long enough to be called a list at all. More to the point, young children told not to talk to strangers do talk to strangers anyway. On a powerful segment of the Oprah Winfrey Show, children were successfully lured away from inattentive parents time after time. Ken Wooden, the author of Child Lures, is among the nation’s most effective advocates for children’s safety. He described his appearance on the program:

“Oprah’s producers and I approached several young mothers in a suburban park to ask for their cooperation with our experiment. Each mother emphatically insisted that her child would never leave the park with a stranger, then watched in horror from a distance as her youngster cheerfully followed me out of the park to look for my puppy. On average, it took thirty-five seconds to lure each child away from the safety of the park.”

Clearly, the children lured away by this ploy were not ready to be on their own, and they were too far away from their mothers. I’ve observed people in public leave a small child farther away than they’d ever leave a purse or briefcase. Of course, a purse or briefcase isn’t expected to protect itself, and herein lies the huge fallacy at the center of The Rule. It assumes that a small child has something to contribute to his or her own protection, and that’s just not true.

Reliance upon a young child in such high-stakes matters is misplaced. Imagine selecting a five-year-old babysitter for your child. Many parents have done virtually that by placing part of the responsibility for a child’s personal security on the child. I heard one parent say about The Rule, “We’ve told her a hundred times, but she just doesn’t get it.” Then think of that as your starting point: She doesn’t get it. Maybe because she’s too young, or maybe because she just doesn’t get it, but listen to that fact. When we assume that a young child will reliably do what we say in our absence, or that doing it will keep him or her safe, we are choosing to share our duty with the least qualified person available. We’d actually find a more reliable guard for our children by choosing a total stranger.

Even if I believed in the effectiveness of The Rule it would be hard to endorse the ways it is often taught. Here’s a passage from a children’s book entitled, Never Talk to Strangers:

“If you are hanging from a trapeze and up sneaks a camel with bony knees, remember this rule, if you please–Never Talk To Strangers.”

The book goes on to discuss grouchy grizzly bears, parachuting hawks, a rhinoceros waiting for a bus, coyotes asking the time, cars with whales at the wheel, etc. With all due credit to the author, whose heart was surely in the right place, how effective can this be? Some people might judge effectiveness by a child’s ability to recite the catchy rhymes, but that’s a test of memory, not a test of the ability to protect oneself.

Even if a child fully learns and embraces the rule of not talking to strangers, many kids believe a stranger is an unshaven man in tattered clothes; neither the nice neighbor nor the guy at the check-out counter is one of those.

In addition to the fact that it doesn’t work, The Rule actually reduces safety in several ways. One is that within the message Never Talk to Strangers (because they may harm you) is the implication that people you know will not harm you. If stranger equals danger, then friend equals safety. But the opposite is true far more often. First of all, we are inherently more protected against a stranger; he must get around the defense systems of the parent and the child. The friend, conversely, is ushered inside the gates and given a pass. The friend has been gifted with what every other predator must work to gain: trust and access. So, the issue isn’t strangers versus acquaintances; it is people who might harm your child versus people who won’t, people who deserve your trust versus people who don’t.

Until a child is old enough to understand what predatory strategies look like, old enough and confident enough to resist them, assertive enough to seek help, powerful enough to enforce the word No–until all that happens, a child is too young to be his own protector, too young to merit any of your reliance, too young to be part of the defense system, period.

Presumably, The Rule is intended to provide protection in the event the child is alone somewhere, because if a parent is present, then what difference does it make if a young child speaks with a stranger? The irony is that if your child is ever lost in public, the ability to talk to strangers is actually the single greatest asset he could have. To seek assistance, to describe one’s situation, to give a phone number, to ask advice, to say No–all these interactions require the child to speak with strangers. If kids view talking to strangers as the threshold they mustn’t cross, then when they do cross it (and they will), they have no further tools. Talking is just talking, after all, but since what we really want to avoid is our child going somewhere with someone, that’s the thing to teach them about.

Another way The Rule reduces safety is by providing unearned peace of mind; because of it, some parents don’t take other precautions. But there’s still another, more pervasive way The Rule reduces safety: Children raised to assume all strangers might be dangerous do not develop their own inherent skills of evaluating behavior. The Rule hurts all of us by producing generation after generation of people who fear people, mostly because they don’t understand them. Fear of people is really the fear that we can’t predict their behavior. Bottom line: The issue isn’t strangers, it is strangeness.

Gavin de Becker is one of the world’s leading authorities on security, and the author of Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane).

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