How Do I Talk to My 4Yr Old Son About Strangers?

Updated on May 24, 2010
T.F. asks from Eugene, OR
17 answers

With the current kidnapping attempt around my area it got me thinking. I was wondering how other parents start the discussion "Stranger Danger" with your child. My son is so social when we are in a store or wherever - he sees you walk by he says "Hi" and waves. It's kinda hard to tell him don't talk to people you don't know when he sees Mommy and Daddy talking to strangers all the time. What have you done with this topic? I don't want him to be scared of people. I just don't want him to be a target either.

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answers from Seattle on

Hi T.,
The Berenstain Bears have a book that may be a great way to get him thinking about strangers. I think it's called The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers.

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answers from Seattle on

Hi there! Another woman already mentioned it, but it is worth repeating. The John Walsh video (which was also created by the woman that brought you Baby Einstein) Safe Side Safety Is a great video for kids. It is a silly video that gives kids a serious message and does it in such a way as to not scare kids. I would highly recommend it. My kids picked up on the message right away.
Good luck.
BTW, it is never too soon to start talking about stranger danger.

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answers from Kansas City on

There's no reason to teach him not to talk to strangers, you need to teach him never to go anywhere with strangers. Role play with him. Teach him what to do if a stranger ever comes up to him and offers him candy, or says "hey, little boy, want to see the cute puppies in my car?" Have him act out screaming "You're not my daddy!" and running away. Strangers arent anything to be scared of, statistically your child is in more danger in the car with you than playing outside. He's 40 times more likely to be in a car accident than be kidnapped. And the majority of kidnapping is from relatives, not strangers. So teach him the typical situations that might occur, candy, puppies, etc, and teach him what to do. Children are taught to obey adults, but the one thing they should never obey is to go off with someone they dont know. And they, and you, will feel better if they have a plan if the unlikely should happen.

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answers from Houston on

This is a tad bit off subject, but relative, non the less.
My dd is three. She has limited understanding about actions and consequeces. Nevertheless, I have taught her my name, Daddy's name and her last name. Also, I encourage women to teach their young ones, that if they get lost, to find another "Mama". Meaning, find another woman with kids. Police uniforms can be hard for a toddler. How often are police in the local Target? It is a slim to none chance that another mother wont help a child in need. We, as mothers, have that uncanny knack to "mother" ALL children. I would like my child to find a woman with three loud kids, pushing a full grocery basket and trying to read coupons, rather than trying to find a police officer....who is more likely to be in my domain?
Women are seldomly in the news for kidnapping. Especially ones that have a brewd to begin with.

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answers from Dallas on

Tell him if you are by his side he can talk to people because he is safe with you, but when alone it is a different matter. For example if he is outside playing in the yard and you are not there then tell him he should not talk to anyone and immediately come in the house to you if someone he doesn't know approaches or tries to talk to him. Tell him the truth. Most people are nice, but there are bad people in the world and he needs to stay near you to be safe until he gets older.

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answers from Anchorage on

Hi, when my kids were younger we would do role play. I pretended to be the 'bad guy' and they would then play the child's role. I would create different scenario's; here's one: 'you are out on the playground, some guy comes up to you with a photo of his puppy and says, 'can you please help me find my puppy he's lost ! would you please come and help me search for him ?' and then I explain to my kids that this is one of many scams that are meant to lure the child away and if you are to follow the bad guy he will take you away from your family forever and you will never see us again. I tell them to say, "NO I can't help you !" and to run away and tell someone asap what just happened and to remember details about any encounter (what the man looked like, what he was wearing, etc.)
Another: You (the child) are out walking down the street and a car pulls up next to you and rolls down the window and asks you for directions. "Can you come closer I can't hear you ?' You (the child) are never to even Go near a car that someone is asking you anything, and to run as fast as you can back home (or to another trusted person) and explain what you remember (car type, color, what the guy looks like, etc.) I explain that NO ADULT will EVER ask a child for help, for directions, for anything. Adults only ask adults these types of things. I tell them that IF any adult asks them such things, to run away immediately. To find another mom or someone that can assist them.

Of course, the best remedy is to always keep your kids with you, and never let them wander off in stores or anything, unless they are with another older family member. You unfortunately DO need to instill some fear in them (because of the sick corrupt society we live in filled with predators) otherwise they do become too trusting and Will be the child that walks off with the pedophile. I would rather have my child suspicious and untrusting of strangers, than to be in a denial of the types of sickos out there and become the next victim. We are not living in Mayberry anymore, this is the way it has to be.

I also remember there were some videos called 'stranger danger' I think my kids watched that had some scenarios that helped somewhat - but I think actual role playing between family members really did the trick. My kids are now older (8-15 yrs.) and very confident about how to handle various things. They never have had any issues with anyone.

I also would suggest never letting your kids go to the restroom alone in a public place (restaurant, movie theatre, etc.) there are sickos who prey on unattended young kids in there. I know one one of my son's young classmates (he was 5 yrs. old at the time) who was molested in a public restroom at the YMCA as he went in alone. Awful. Do not let your kids go in alone !! My son would go into the woman's restroom until he was about 11-12 as I did not want him to go in the men's restroom unattended. I had some naive stupid women give me some nasty looks and even comment that boys shouldn't be in here ! Give me a break, I told them to mind their own business (obviously they don't have kids or they Would have a clue). Do what YOU feel in your heart is right. Do not let others dictate how to live your life. Instill in your children that most people in life are good, but there are those out there that are evil and will harm children/adults and we do not know by their looks who these people are - they could be your next door neighbor.

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answers from Eugene on

Hi T.,

It can be so hard to know what the real danger level is. Not all strangers are "dangers"--in fact, most are potential friends and neighbors should know one another. That is the absolutely best way I can think of to reduce dangers from REAL strangers--to know your neighbors and to have them know and be involved with you and your children. That's what I see as the biggest difference between the relative freedom and safety many of us older moms grew up with when we were kids and the seemingly total fear of younger moms today. It's not that there is a greater danger of something terrible happening--statistically, that kind of crime is far less than it once was. It's more that there is less ability to know and trust the people who live around us, with more barriers to actual neighborhood interaction, and especially with us going farther and farther out of our neighborhoods for school and other activities.

So, I had this dilemma in an extra big way, since when my two eldest daughters were very little, my husband (now ex) and I made our primary living through a craft business at weekend festivals and markets. That meant our children were present and we HAD to interact with literally hundreds of "strangers" every day! Not every person hanging around such a market is safe, either, as this can be a place for predators. But not every person who "looks bad" is really bad--many of the homeless people in those environments were very nice and good people, just down on their luck. I felt strongly that I wanted my kids to learn how to tell the difference rather than just giving them a blanket rule.

First, of course, in those environments, we made sure that the kids were well known by all the other regular crafters (the neighbors). We also set very strong rules about always being near a parent or designated adult. But we also taught our girls to get to know and trust their gut feelings about someone. You can sense, even with a big friendly smile or an offer of candy, when someone underneath the exterior is just not right. You can also sense when the exterior is maybe smelly or dirty but the person is sweet and caring. I taught my kids, through example, to be able to say hello and be friendly while keeping safe distance, boundaries, and staying in a place where others knew them. I taught them to use the buddy system, and to never go anywhere without a friend. When they want to stretch that umbilical cord just a bit farther than I'm ready for, we have a little talk to review our safety procedures.

And now that my youngest is 11 and wants to be able to ride her bike to meet her friends at the nearby park (in a very safe neighborhood), she also has a MIGO cell phone--it's preprogrammed for four numbers, cannot take pictures or text or even call anyone but those numbers, except 911 in an emergency, at which time it can be traced. It's not perfect, but it gives her more freedom while I have more security.

Unfortunately, the biggest dangers to young children does not come from strangers--when a child is abused, it often comes from a person known to that child. So the other side of this coin is to teach your child what is appropriate behavior for an adult with a child, and that, when something feels wrong, it is important for your child to tell you. It is ok to be a "bad boy" if someone who feels "icky" is telling him he will get in trouble by not following what they want him to do. You will never get mad if he disobeys a stranger OR a family member who tells him he should do something he isn't sure about.

We can never be completely secure in life, but these things have helped me to trust my child's safety in most situations.

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answers from Tulsa on

I agree with the previous poster that strangers aren't where the most danger comes from. If you remember some of the kidnapping cases in the news most were done by someone who had some contact with the family. Although it can be a stranger you have teach your child that no adults will ever need their help finding anything, they would go to a police officer or ask other adults if they really need help. It is also your job to be hyper vigilant in watching your child out in public. J (3) never walks around by himself by my side, he is in the basket at all times, K (6) is on the same row as me but no more than 10 feet away.

I have a hard time finding the happy medium where the kids aren't scared to death to go out the door or talking and making friends with anyone they come across.


answers from Eugene on

It is important that our children not fear other people. Give him some good rules. Don't take sweets or presents from people you don't know unless Mom and Dad are present. Do not go into strangers cars or homes without permission from one of your parents. If something seems strange or out of order to him he should not keep it a secret from you.
He's a friendly child and therefore that is one of his gifts in life that he can connect with people.
I would tell him about people who would try to take him and how to spot danger. And to yell loudly and be obnoxious if he feels he is in danger. There are books for young children about sexual preditors and you can read him one or two so that he knows about it.
Other than that just pray he has a good and safe life.



answers from Chicago on

I agree with Patty. I thought about this last summer when my son was four and so I got a couple bookts from the library. What I really wanted to find was an old Barney clip from when my brother was little, but the books worked good for me. I remind him a lot about "stranger danger" and he lets his friends and little brother know. He is reluctant some times to talk to strangers when he's with me, but I'm glad. Be sure to also say that you would never send some stranger to get him, it would always be someone he knows (or the police) if you or daddy are in trouble. See how he responds when you talk to him...don't give too much information, but just enough (like if he were to ask were babies come from). Is he familiar with 911 and the police and firefighters? Mommy and daddy have a job that helps people in some ways and the police and firefighters have a job that help people keep safe.


answers from Austin on

I just bought my 4 yo daughter the "Berenstain Bears' Learn About Strangers". I think it does a good job... It provides a good springboard for you to introduce and supplement the topic. To start the topic, all I had to say was "Look, Mama got you a new book...".

You'd laugh because Mama & Papa bear get worried because Sister bear is overly friendly and talkative to everyone (sound familiar?). The book costs $4 from Barnes & Nobles.



answers from Eugene on

There is a lot a "stranger danger" fear in this town. There is a lot of great advise here. If get happens to get lost, who could he talk to? Is every stranger is danger, like other moms with kids? See my question.



answers from Portland on

Personally I do not discuss "stranger danger" with my young children. There is no reason to scare your kids or make them suspicious of strangers. You should always be watching your 4 year old, he is not old enough to make decisions about good and bad on his own, period. Also, if someone wants to kid-nap a small child they will. It doesn't matter how much you've scared them into not talking to strangers. A full grown man can pick a child up and put them in a car, it doesn't matter if your kid cooperates.

I also have a VERY out-going child. He talks to everyone, everywhere and I think it's great. It's more important to me to supervise him while he learns to express himself, gain confidence, and like people. He's made many a home-less person's day because he doesn't discern good and bad, he just likes to chat. :)



answers from Eugene on

My daughters really like the Berenstain Bears story about strangers. It's not scary, but gets a point across. I also like the fact that it tends to open up conversation and I can talk more with them about the subject.



answers from Las Vegas on

I just checked amazon and there seems to be a whole slew of children's books devoted to stranger danger. The one that I have read to my kids is not there but am sure that the Bernstain Bears book about not talking to strangers would be age appropriate and not too scary.

Also, John Walsh (of America's Most Wanted) produced a Safe Side movie a while back. I was able to check it out from our local library so maybe you can do the same.

Hope this helps.



answers from Portland on

Hi T.-

I'm a parent coach, and I've developed a class called Beyond Stranger Danger. It's all about understanding what predators don't want you to know. I teach parents how to keep their children safe while about & about and teach your kids how to talk when they need to.

I have another class in early June at the Garden Home Rec Center, but since you're in Eugene, it may be a problem for you to attend, so feel free to contact and I'd be happy to talk to you about your concerns.

For now, realise that 4 year olds cannot understand that adults could hurt them, this is beyond their ability to comprehend. Additionally, the idea of a "stranger" is not something a child can understand, even older kids have a hard time with this concept.

So first, tell your child a stranger is a person they do not know, specifically a person Mommy & Daddy hasn't introduced them to. Aunt Mary was a stranger, but Mommy & Daddy introduced you to Aunt Mary. Elmo is a stranger, we see Elmo every day, and we see he is nice, but he is a stranger. This is a helpful way for kids to understand who a stranger is.

We teach our kids to be nice to adults, but then get mad when they talk to strangers, so we need to be clear about our message. I think it is ok to say hi, as long as we teach them giving personal information is not ok & leaving with someone other than Mom & Dad is not ok.

Let me know if you have more questions. This is a subject important to me and I want to help.

R. Magby



answers from Portland on

"And here's some great news; for the most part, predators are looking for the path of least resistance and a chatty, noisy, empowered kid who won't keep a secret and talks to everyone certainly doesn't make an easy target. Don't worry that your child says hello to everyone wherever you go." -Sabrina

Sabrina makes a great point. I think the warning, "Don't talk to strangers" is outdated and dangerous. It just teaches our kids to be fearful, and doesn't protect them against the real threats.

I have started teaching my 4-year old son specific threats to watch out for. We play little games about who is allowed to touch or see his private parts ("is mommy allowed to touch you? Yes! Is the neighbor allowed to ask you to pull down your pants? No! What do you do if anyone asks you to touch their private parts? Don't do it, and come tell mommy and daddy right away! etc..."

I think this is much more helpful than a blanket "stranger danger" concept.

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