The Problem with Teaching Kids about Stranger Danger

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a thoughtful piece by Jan Hoffman about whether kids can walk to school by themselves. In the US, just 13% of kids are walking or biking to school, down from 41% in 1969. (That drop, as steep as it is, is nothing compared to what's happened in the UK: Gill Valentine found that, in 1971, 80% of British children were responsible for getting themselves to school. By 1990, that figure was just 9%.)

Hoffman took pains to show both sides of this agonizing issue – the tradeoff between absolute safety and the desire to encourage kids some small amount of responsibility and self-efficacy. I was very happy to see Hoffman's story picked up by others such as the Today Show.

But I'd like to go a bit further on a related issue – how we talk to kids about "stranger danger," and how much parents let their anxieties be felt by their children.

It's one thing to tell a kid not to accept candy from a stranger, that a kid shouldn't go anywhere with a stranger or get in a stranger's car, etc. But some of safety messages go much further – telling kids that they should never speak to strangers, and they can't trust anyone that they don't already know.

It's at this point that the scholars such as University of Durham professor Sue Scott warn of a problem. Especially if the kids live in an urban environment, most of the people that a child will encounter in an average day will in fact be strangers.

Kids who are constantly warned of stranger danger come to see the world as a very threatening, dangerous place. Every interaction puts them at risk. For some young kids, they don't even understand the distinction between "stranger" and "strange" – so they think that anything out of their ordinary experience can be a threat.

When the default position becomes that kids should be fearful of everyone, with frequent admonitions to never talk to or trust strangers, that leaves kids with no practical guidance on how to carry normal discourse. And kids are aware of the disconnect: the kid who says hello to a bus driver or asks a store cashier a question knows that he has just broke the "Don't talk to strangers" rule.

So, as Scott explains, what ends up happening is that kids come up with these ad-hoc, fairly random decisions about who is all right to trust. They just size up a person by gender, appearance, and situation, and then hope for the best. (And of course, it's exactly that sort of "he looked nice" reasoning that can get kids into trouble.)

There has to be some middle ground – where kids can be taught specifics on how to handle themselves in different situations – a focus on what people are doing, not who they are. So that children can feel empowered, rather than helpless and frightened.