Stranger danger? Maybe.

I did not teach my children “never talk to strangers,” that all-too-common line that makes every unknown person a danger. Nor did I teach- or model for them the idea that every stranger is “just a friend you have not met.” I am certain that if we never talked to strangers, we would never meet potential new friends, but I temper that with commonsense cautiousness.

When my then-3-year-old daughter and I were at the local shopping mall, we spotted a man who had the most unusual walking stick, hand-carved with a snake undulating up its length, and embedded with semi-precious stones. We were both fascinated and curious, so I stopped him for a chat. The “stranger” told us that he had carved the stick himself, and collected the stones while on rock hound vacations with his family when the kids were young. We learned that his entire family had been into gem hunting and cutting, and that common interest was the center of their leisure time and a source of many happy memories. My daughter and I expressed appreciation for his work of art, and I thanked him for taking the time to share his story.

As my little girl and I continued on our walk around the mall, we passed by the little county police booth off the food court. A staffer saw my daughter and came out to offer her a McGruff the Crime Dog pencil and a coloring book, and proceeded to tell her she should “never talk to strangers!” and I almost burst out laughing.

According to personal safety expert and author Gavin De Becker , the police rep was more likely a danger—by virtue that she approached my daughter—than the man with the remarkable stick, whom we chose to approach. Of course, I used both of those encounters as examples of being open to approaching new people, and being cautious about those who approach us.

The majority of perps are not strangers; they know their victims, and gradually encroach, planning out every step, wooing the kids with friendship, attention, and special treatment. I know this from experience. Yes, it happened to me, and because of that, I have taught my children to trust their instincts, to worry about personal safety first, and “being nice” second.

Through example and careful words throughout their lives, I have let my children know that you can’t recognize a perp by looking at him (I say “him” because most offenders are male), and that they have the right to say “NO!” to anyone whose presence or behavior makes them feel uncomfortable. This was reinforced by their taking the radKIDS and RAD self-defense courses, which provide interactive, physical lessons in defending bodily integrity.

My children’s “lessons” in self-protection have been learned slowly over time, gently, and as appropriate. For instance, they have long known that adults have no business asking them for assistance, that adults should ask other adults for help. I have told my daughters that, if anyone approaches in a car, they are to walk in the opposite direction from the way the car is heading, and go to an area where there are a lot of people. They know that if they are lost or in trouble, they should seek assistance from someone—preferably a woman—working nearby, and they should not look for a security guard, because, statistically, most of them are ill-trained at best, and may be dangerous themselves.

I am proud that my daughters know that predators exist, and that my girls know they can stand up for themselves when need be. I am also pleased that they understand that strangers do not necessarily represent danger, that they are comfortable in a variety of situations. It is immensely satisfying to know that my children’s lives will be uncolored by the taint of abuse, that they are free to be who they are, to live confidently in the world, and enjoy it.

(C) 2007, 2011 by Shay Seaborne. All rights reserved.

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