Safe Routes Scoop
Teaching Children Personal Safety: Tips and Strategies

Many parents worry about the safety of their children, whether on the way to or from school, in the park, or anywhere else where constant adult supervision is lacking. One of the biggest concerns for parents is teaching their children how to be properly wary of strangers when out in public places. Yet the possibility of harm to children from unknown people, usually called “stranger danger,” can sometimes be overstated.


Much of the fear surrounding “stranger danger” comes from second- or third-hand stories, media reports, and educational films. Understandably, this information causes us to worry about our children. Yet, despite all of the attention focused on “stranger danger,” a closer look at child abductions doesn’t necessarily justify our conclusions on the severity of the problem. In the majority of cases, the danger comes not from a stranger, bur rather a perpetrator known to the parent or child. Of the approximately 69,000 abductions reported each year, 82 percent involve a family member, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Non-family abductions account for the remaining 18 percent and, of those, only 37 percent involve a stranger, just 6.7% of the total.


Ignoring these significant distinctions between types of strangers when teaching “stranger danger” may do

do little to address the actual threats children can encounter, or even deny them an opportunity to get help when needed. This famously happened with a Cub Scout lost in the Utah wilderness in 2005 who initially avoided his rescuers, even after being lost for days, because of fear of approaching strangers. Since most children’s encounters with adults do not involve actual strangers, it is important to teach children to be wary of people they have met only a few times as well as what is appropriate behavior with any adult.


Some organizations, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), believe that society needs to retire the “stranger danger” message, which that group views as incomplete and outdated.  NCMEC has learned that children do not fully understand the concept and are confused by the concept of “good” and “bad” strangers. They will often describe a stranger as someone who is “ugly or mean” and don’t perceive “nice-looking or friendly” people as strangers. All the same, making it clear to your child that most people would rather help than hurt a child can dispel some of the anxiety children face when being taught about safety.


Most importantly, perhaps, is teaching children in a way that allows them to understand the situation without scaring them. Going over simple rules

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