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Monday, February 8, 2010

How Do You Talk to Your Kids About Talking to Strangers?

By Katie M

I just saw the movie The Lovely Bones, and even though it’s been years since reading the book, I cried just the same. The story begins with the murder (and implied rape) of a young girl who, for the rest of the story, narrates her experiences from Heaven as she and her family seek revenge. It’s a tough story – both to watch and to read – but it sheds light on an important and harrowing lesson all parents must somehow communicate and confront with their children. I think the scariest part is knowing Susie Salmon, the main character in the story, is 14-years-old (an age when you’d think she’d know better than to get in such a situation) and was lured by her neighbor (not necessarily a “stranger”) into a remote place where the crime was committed.

The whole scenario presented by The Lovely Bones is undoubtedly my greatest fear as a parent as I’m sure it is with you. It’s not something you can discuss with your child and assume it will sink in. You can have the whole talk about not talking to strangers, but what about people who aren’t necessarily strangers in the eyes of your child?

Consider the whole Natalee Holloway story, a different twist on the topic of strangers. She was 18 and left her friends with a boy her own age who she innocently trusted. I was completely addicted this story and watched Greta Van Susteren night after night. At the time my daughter was only a year old, but I could not peel myself away from the horrifying details and unthinkable grief her family must have been (and are still) going through.

I also inherited a lot of paranoia on this topic from my mother, and for good reason. When my mom was six-years-old she came close to being a victim of one of these horrible situations. She had gotten off the school bus at her friend’s house, and then later walked home by herself. (I know it’s impossible to think of a six-year-old walking home by herself, but it was the early 1950s and, as you know, it was a completely different world). My mom was wearing her Catholic school uniform, and a strange man approached her saying his daughter was starting at the same Catholic school but didn’t know anyone in her class. He asked if my mom could come home with him to meet her, and as a trusting six-year-old would do, my mom agreed to get in his car.

At that point he drove her to a deserted field outside of town and exposed himself. Literally - and luckily - at that same moment, my mom remembers a bunch of dogs and its owner coming up over a hill near the car, and the stranger drove away before anything worse happened and dropped my mom at the local YMCA. Little did the stranger know, but that YMCA was right around the corner from my mom’s house, so she walked home thinking nothing about what had happened except that she was going to be in trouble for not coming straight home from school. As soon as she turned onto her street, the police were already at her house waiting to question her about the man and his car. She was lucky to say the least! And her own memory also protected her. It wasn’t for another 20+ years before my mom recalled everything! It all came back to her in the middle of the night after she had been married for several years. (Unfortunately she doesn't think that man was ever caught.)

So, needless to say, that first day of kindergarten for me – leaving my mom and taking the bus by myself – was not an easy task for my mom! And to make matters worse, I forgot to get off the bus after school - throwing my mom into a huge panic attack – but I was ok :)

So, let’s get back to the topic of teaching children about strangers. As soon as The Lovely Bones ended, the four of us (all moms) said we were going straight home to - once again - talk to our children about not talking to strangers. But it’s more than just “don’t talk to strangers,” it’s also “don’t go anywhere with anyone unless Mommy or Daddy say it’s ok.”

But how do you communicate this message about people who aren’t necessarily strangers? Or people our children innocently think must be OK because they have a child who goes to their school (or so my mom thought)? How do you talk about all this without making your outgoing and happy child unsociable and paranoid? Or what if your child ever gets separated from you? They will have no choice but to seek help from a stranger. And if you think about it, just about everyone is a stranger to a child, at least at first, including police officers.

It’s a lot to think about – for both the parents and the children. You can come up with rules, but not all rules are practical. Situations constantly change, and with that, the rules change too. So to simplify things, we are following these steps with our children for now:

1.) Be polite to everyone, but never go anywhere with anyone unless Mommy or Daddy (or their current caregiver) says it is ok.
2.) If they are ever separated from us, they need to seek out someone in uniform (and that can be a police officer, a security guard, a cashier, or even a waiter) to talk to. This means we are also working on identifying all the different possible “uniforms” with our children.

So please add your thoughts. What are your rules, and what smarty advice can you add to this topic?

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Rachel H said...

I read this book before I had children and it obviously affected me so much differently when I saw the movie after having had kids. We always do role-playing around here to practice what they would do if someone asked them to come with them or jump in their car. As much as I would like to think my kids would run away, you never really know. I have always said I would like to get a friend of mine who they do not know to ask them to come with him/her just to see what they'd do, but then I thought that might be really mean and I might not like what they choose to do! It is really tough. Like you said, so many times it is people they know, and I have raised my kids to be polite and friendly to everyone. Very scary.

R.J.M. said...

I have so many of these same fears and I, too, have a little one who will talk to anybody. I just try my best to keep my children always in sight for now. As they get older I know that will become more difficult, but hopefully they will also be able to better understand why they should not talk to strangers.

Katie M said...

I am hoping you meant to write, "As much as I would like to think my kids WOULD'T run away," and NOT "would run away..." Ha, ha! Thanks for your comment.

Kristen said...

I took it as she meant "run away" from the stranger!

Great post, by the way!

Anonymous said...

Ugh, this subject is tough for me, since I was assaulted by my neighbor as a child. (I was 4, he was 13.) One thing I have told my kid is if they get lost and can't find someone in uniform, to approach a mom with kids. It isn't perfect advice but how often is a child lost and a policeman pops up?

Another thing I am resolved to do is tell my children that if anything someone does makes them uncomfortable, they need to tell me or their dad immediately and not be ashamed or embarrassed, no matter what it is and who does it. Even as young as I was, I had the sense to tell my mom what had happened, but I was so embarrassed about it and felt like it was my fault somehow. Many kids would be too embarrassed to tell, as I almost was. I am so lucky that I did.

cdm said...

THE SHACK has a similar story line. The book, along with a childhood male "flasher" experience, definitely made me a more cautious mother of three. Trust, but be very aware of everyone!!! Even the most trustworthy of people sometimes aren't so much trustworthy!

RLR said...

This post has come at the perfect time for me! My son just told me (literally, just a few moments ago) about a dream he had last night - a stranger came in while I was sleeping and took me from my family." I also have a younger daughter who knows no strangers, and she's at the age where we need to begin discussing these things. Thanks for the great post, and also to all of the commenters for their thoughts, as well!

Anonymous said...

I think it's also important to remind children that adults don't need kids' help (not in the sense of them helping with chores, of course). Meaning, that man (or woman) who asks them to go with them to help them find their puppy (or child or whatever) is probably up to no good. Children are naturally empathetic and trusting, so that's hard. And with (non-parent) adults, they tend to be rule-followers and respectful, so we have to teach them that if they are in a situation that feels wrong (like a grown up trying to get them to go with them) - that it's ok to kick, scream, hit, whatever to get away, and that they won't get in trouble.

Naomi said...

I was just talking about this yesterday! How to explain the difference between being polite and protecting oneself is SO difficult for little ones. My three-year-old son is now in the habit of asking people to their faces if they are strangers or not! :-)

We're still working on it and meanwhile praying that God grants them discernment, and when they feel uncomfortable that it is okay not to talk, to leave, and to find help.

Anonymous said...

The most important thing to remember, only a very small percentage of child sex offenders are strangers.

Oprahs 3 part interview this week sheds light on that.

Elizabeth said...

I taught my daughter to look for someone with a name tag at stores. There isn't a police officer around very often, but they can find people with name tags in most locations.

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