Never (Ever?) Talk to Strangers

Jan 09

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This morning, after outfitting all three kids as though they were about to race a leg of the Iditarod, I huddled them into the minivan and drove to my kindergartener’s school, the usual first stop on our morning drop-off journey. But when I rounded the corner in front of the school, I instantly knew something was amiss: Jim, the crossing guard, wasn’t at his post. (Jim is always at his post.) As I inched closer, I saw other cars turning into the school driveway, the heads of the other moms and dads craning left and right, looking, as I was, for the gym teacher who supervises morning drop-off. Slowly we all put it together, signaling to each other from inside our cars: due to the cold, there was a 90-minute delay. School would start at 10.

I pulled into a parking space to call my little ones’ school to make sure they were running on schedule when I saw a small pink figure walking down the sidewalk away from the school. I looked closer and saw tears streaming down her face. I put down the passenger window and asked her if she needed any help. She started to cry even harder as she nodded yes. I hurried out of the car and asked, “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

“My mom dropped me off, but there’s nobody inside,” she coughed. “I can’t get in!”

I put my arm around her and pointed to my eldest inside the van: “My son goes to kindergarten here. Why don’t you come inside and warm up and we can figure out what to do next?”

And then, just like that, a little girl I didn’t know was sitting in my car.

Long story made a little bit shorter: We called her mom, but she didn’t answer so I left a message. Meanwhile, a few other, older kids arrived at school – walkers all – and found themselves in the same predicament as our pink friend. Within a few minutes, someone inside the school must have realized what was going on and let them in. I decided that we should bring our young charge inside too. I unbuckled and unsnapped my three and started walking all four kids toward the office. En route we met up with one of the kindergarten teachers who volunteered to bring our little friend inside. Back to the car, car seats fastened, seat belts buckled, another call to her mom to let her know all was well, and away we went.

But as my brain and fingers began to thaw, I realized that I might have taught my kids an inadvertently complicated lesson. As we made our way to the preschool, they replayed the morning’s adventure.

“It’s good that we were there to help her warm up,” my six year old started.

“Yeah, it’s good to be a kid,” the four year old replied.

“Oh yeah?” I offered.

“Yeah,” he responded. “Everybody’s so nice to kids.”

And most people are, right? And we’d all hope that, if there were a mix-up and one of our children got locked out of school in the cold, someone would help them out. We want our kids to look for the helpers and trust those who are.

But what about the tricky part? What about the fact that not every grown-up with a van is a helper? That there are some people we don’t want our kids to talk to and some cars we don’t want them to get into? How do we teach our kids to be smart without making them scared?

“Lots of people are, buddy. And she was right to trust a mom with her kids at her school. But we’re going to talk later on about when it’s not a great idea to talk to strangers.”

As soon as I figure out what to say.

How do you teach your kids to be smart in a world that’s usually – but not always – safe?

Image: bus to chicago by Bradley Gordon via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Micki January 9, 2014 at 7:29 am

I don’t teach my kids stranger danger. I think it’s stupid for exactly the story you shared . Instead we talk about safe people and not safe people. If someone makes them nervous, trust it … Even if it’s someone they know. And how often do kids see parents talking to strangers? All the time! I teach my kids if they get lost find a mom with kids or a grandma. Don’t automatically look for a store employee or someone who looks like an officer. Kids may not be able to tell the difference between security guard and a real officer. A man is also more likely just to take a lost child to customer service and leave. A mom is more likely to wait and be proactive about reuniting the child with the patent.

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Hi Micki – Thanks so much for your comment. It’s funny: when I told my husband the story of our experience at drop-off and my concern about what to tell the kids, he immediately said, “That’s easy; just tell them to look for a mom.” His response and your comment make me realize what a good shorthand that can be.

I’m such a sap that I always try to think the best of everyone, but that’s not very helpful in this situation: not all strangers are created equal and looking for a mom isn’t a bad place to start.

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Shannon January 9, 2014 at 7:51 am

Wow. That is a tough one. I’m glad you were there to help the little one. It becomes even tougher when you add in the “people they know” lessons, which, statistics show, is a far more likely threat. How do you teach that without making them untrusting of everyone?

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Oy. That’s a good point. Where’s Mary Poppins when you need her to swoop in and handle all of this tricky parenting stuff? :)

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micki @addhousewife January 9, 2014 at 5:12 pm

This is where you teach them to trust their instincts. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable listen to it. The first time I met my BFF from college’s ex-husband, I immediately had this feeling he was a total sleezeball. Turned out I was right, which is why he is now her EX LOL

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 8:05 pm

I may be too trusting in general (or at least tend to think the best of people), but, like you, I do have good instincts, especially for sleaze-balls. Hopefully my kids have inherited them.

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Nina January 9, 2014 at 8:31 am

I really appreciate the nuanced issue here. Almost nothing in this world is black and white, including talking to strangers.

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Thanks, Nina!

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slamdunk January 9, 2014 at 10:03 am

Glad you all were there to help. I do our youngest kid’s drop off and I am surprised at how many parents will just toss their kids out on the side of the road and let them fend for themselves in frigid weather until the school door opens (despite this being against the school policy). I can where sometimes a parent is running late for work and they feel forced into doing this, but there is one grandmother who does this all the time. I see her getting coffee at the gas station afterward. Shame-shame.

As to your question, it is a difficult one. I think it is easier to start with the “never” rule when they are really young, but then allow exceptions once kids are able to discern situations better. Ironically, I recently blogged on this topic with a new speech therapist working with our son and how the idea of Halloween seems to contradict the safety message.

Ok, enough from me–enjoy your day.

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 1:43 pm

So little in parenting is black and white and this situation really emphasized that. The trouble, as you point out, is that little kids are often more literal than we grown-ups so trying to teach them nuance might make things even worse. In the car, my kids went on to talk about how a lot of parents they know drive minivans so, if they’re ever lost, they should start looking for a van to flag down.

Oh, dear. I think I’ve got my work cut out for me… :)

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lisa January 9, 2014 at 4:12 pm

I was a leader of a youth group when my kids were in elementary school and staged having a *stranger* run into the meeting room and plead for someone to help find a lost puppy. And you know what? Just about all of them jumped up to go help!! I was dumbfounded, and we quickly had a discussion about the danger of leaving with someone you don’t know. A second time, I staged someone coming in with *leftover candy* after Halloween. Many of them were going to take the candy from a *stranger* and when asked why, they said it was okay because it was wrapped!! It’s a hard lesson to teach, and I wish you much luck in this area. And, I would tend to agree that when a child needs help, they should look for a mom!!

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Your examples show just how tricky the question of trust can be. By the way, I can totally see my kids wanting to help find a lost puppy. And they’re already pros at taking candy from strangers – every year on Halloween! ;)

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Christie January 9, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Omg, this stops my heart. That poor scared kid. I bet this happens a lot when wacky weather screws up school. I don’t know what to teach my kids. About anything. Especially this.

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 8:10 pm

I was just telling my neighbor that I didn’t realize we had a late opening and she proceeded to tell me the story of how her husband once dropped off their daughter on a day that school was delayed. So, yeah, I guess it happens more often than I would have realized before today!

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Perfecting Motherhood January 9, 2014 at 4:50 pm

I try to teach my kids it’s always a good idea to help others, especially when they look like they could use it. I do tell them not to talk to strangers and definitely not to get in someone’s car. But they know that if they are lost, they are to find someone who works where we’re at. Second option is a “mom with kids”, because they’ll know what to do. I think you can have your talk with your kids of why it was OK for this girl to get into your van. I can’t believe the school wouldn’t open on schedule and not tell the parents ahead of time, especially when it was that cold outside. Very irresponsible!

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Kristen January 9, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Well, to be fair, the announcement was on a ticker that runs on the bottom of the screen of the morning news (the same thing happens on snow days), but we don’t watch the morning news and it never occurred to me to look because it wasn’t snowing. What’s odd is that when we have an early dismissal due to snow, they do robocalls and send automatic emails. I wonder why they don’t do the same for late openings.

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Perfecting Motherhood January 10, 2014 at 12:25 am

Well, that is just silly. I can’t believe schools expect parents to be watching TV every morning to know if there’s a delay. And not everybody has TV anyway (I know we don’t). With the automatic calls and emails, it’s easy to send out the message to all parents, so nobody misses out the announcements. I hope parents complain and put some sense into that school principal. :-)

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StephJ January 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm

This is exactly what I do, as well. The rule is “never GO anywhere with a stranger,” and find someone wearing a uniform. When we are at an amusement park or other place where it’s easy to get lost, I point out the uniform for that place (“See the people in those purple shirts? They work here. If you get lost, go talk to one of them and they will help you.”) It’s also important to give kids a bit of freedom, so that they can learn to cope with danger. A kid who’s never ever left alone for a second doesn’t know how to react when left in that situation, they don’t have the independent problem-solving skills, or instincts.

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Kristen January 11, 2014 at 7:57 pm

So many good observations here, Steph. I especially appreciate what you have to say about giving our kids the experience of freedom – and not hovering over them so closely that they never learn any independence. I also like that you take the time to point out what an employee’s uniform looks like. Something I’ll keep in mind next time I’m out with my kids.

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Nina January 9, 2014 at 10:47 pm

This is a topic that comes up often between me and my husband. We plan to tell our kids that if they’re ever lost, they should seek out a woman who looks like a mom (which is essentially what that little girl did with you). If not that, and if they are in a commercial place, to seek out, preferably a woman, who looks like she works in the area (e.g. the sales lady).

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Kristen January 10, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Before this post, I hadn’t thought of the idea of telling the kids to look for a woman who works in the place where they’re lost. That’s a good one to pass along to them. Thanks!

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Cecilia January 10, 2014 at 8:10 am

You raise a really good and difficult question, Kristen. “Instinct” is the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s what I relied on when I spent the earlier part of my childhood in a less-than-great/safe part of town. It sounds like the little girl used hers – you were on school grounds, you’re a woman, you had children in the car. Something felt right to her. But how to teach and develop that?

I broke my ankle a little while ago and allowed a total stranger (a young man) to drive me home in his car. Things could have turned out disastrously, but instead I got home safely. I’m hoping that my son will be able to accept help from strangers when it is truly needed. Maybe the incident at school was the kind of thing that your children needed to see, to help develop that instinct? You and the little girl gave them an example of when to know it’s okay to talk to strangers.

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Kristen January 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm

I’m certainly glad both that that young man was able to help you in your time of need – and that only good came from your trusting him. It sounds like your instincts are good ones.

I like your suggestion that the incident with the little girl gave my kids an object lesson in knowing who to trust. The key now, I think, is to follow up with them again and again so that they can start honing their own instincts.

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Jack January 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Dads can be a good resource too. I taught my kids to pay attention to their feelings about a person.

Unfortunately there are bad people and you can’t use gender to judge said the father who gets the stink eye from moms at the park.

(Happens more often than I care to think, but it is not unusual for dads to take their kids to the park too. End of rant.)

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Kristen January 10, 2014 at 4:52 pm

I’d give you the stink eye in the park, but that’s only because of your incendiary comments about my former home state. Cleveland rocks, my friend. ;)

In all seriousness, I hear you loud and clear, both on dads as a good resource and the unfair treatment dads often get in our culture. I suspect that any lost child would be lucky to have your help – or that of just about any other dad I know.

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Erica @ Expatria, baby January 10, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Great post, K. I often think about this very issue, and wrestle with the idea of how to talk to my kid about strangers. Especially since here in Indonesia it is completely culturally inappropriate to NOT talk to strangers. Children are revered here, and it’s quite normal to approach a strange child, and pick her up for a cuddle, regardless of whether or not you have a relationship with the child. It’s also normal to rely on the community to help parent your child. A gesture like the one you made would be totally normal, unremarkable even. It makes this stranger business hard to navigate!
I think the idea in the comments here about paying attention to one’s feelings about a person is my key takeaway, and something I’ll be talking about with my girl in the future!!

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Kristen January 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm

It’s fascinating to hear the perspective from a different culture, Erica. I love the idea of a place where children are revered, where they’re doted on by everybody, though I think it would be really hard to get used to after having spent my whole life in the US. You’re a true ambassador!

Hope you’re feeling well! xo

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ayala January 11, 2014 at 6:30 am

This is complicated because things are not always black and white…but I would hope that it would not be so easy for a child to go with a stranger. Great thoughts here. Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year.

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Kristen January 11, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Right back at you, my friend. :)

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Shellie January 14, 2014 at 10:35 am

I highly recommend the book Protecting the Gift. It’s trusting your gut instincts about people and teaching your kids to do the same. As adults we’ve trained ourselves to ignore our first reactions to people for the sake of politeness. When I take my kids to the mall we look for “safe” people and “tricky” people to practice who they would feel good about talking to if they needed help from a stranger. It always surprises me how intuitive my kids are about people with just a glance. But we also have to give them permission to be rude to someone who scares them.

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Kristen January 14, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Thanks so much, Shellie. I actually just requested that book from our library based on a recommendation I had following this post. I look forward to reading it. I also appreciate what you have to say about sacrificing instincts for the sake of politeness – definitely something to keep in mind with my kids!

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Peitra January 19, 2014 at 2:57 pm

I just picked up Protecting the Gift today, while at a used book store- based on the recommendation of a – ahem- stranger! And, rushed home to tell you about it, because I thought of this post when she was telling me about it. Can’t wait to read it!

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Kristen January 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Yay! Can’t wait for mine to arrive from the library so we can compare notes.

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Julie January 15, 2014 at 11:22 am

It is great that you were there to help out and that the poor little girl wasn’t too scaird to allow you to help her. I agree with pretty much all of the comments thus far. Trust your instincts. When mine were that little there was someone with them until they walked in the door and waiting for them when they walked out, (till they were in 5th grade even) thus making this example a non issue. I wonder what some people are thinking sometimes. Anyway, I believe I did a pretty good job with mine, one of the lessons we talked about was if someone grabs you, you kick, hit, scream, hollar your darn little head off! “you’re not my mommy/daddy” was one of the phrases. Also if they found anything (like in the park) not to touch it but come get me. But I think one of the best ideas I had was to tell them they needed to tell me everything, even if they were afraid I would get mad. I understand that is scary for kids, to have mommy mad at them. They would start the conversation with “don’t get mad” and I promised that I wouldn’t fly off the handle. It helped me realise and control my reaction, and explain to them about my disappointment rather than anger. They are in their 20′s now, and my heart still drops when they say “mom? don’t get mad…”

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Kristen January 15, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Hi Julie – Thank you so much for sharing your examples. I especially appreciate your insight about kids being afraid that Mom or Dad will be mad at them. It’s so important that they know that they can trust us with their stories, even if we might not like what they have to say.

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