Experts rethink ‘stranger’ warnings
NEW YORK – Against a backdrop of highly publicized child abductions, some experts are urging parents to abandon the time-honored warning of “Don’t talk to strangers” and instead work creatively with their children on a variety of skills for being safe but not scared.”Our message is that children should recognize and avoid certain situations, rather than certain people,” said Nancy McBride of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.Federal statistics indicate there is no upsurge in child abductions and disappearances, though such cases often gain widespread attention, fueling anxiety among parents and others. Florida lawmakers, for instance, toughened that state’s child-sex laws this spring following the separate abductions and slayings of two girls.For parents, one of the groups trying to channel the anxiety into constructive child-safety approaches is the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, founded by Minnesota couple whose 11-year-son was abducted in 1989 and has not been seen since.The foundation’s executive director, Nancy Sabin, said the Stranger/Danger mantra “is far overrated” because most abductors and abusers are known to the parent or child.”More than 80 percent of the time, the abductor is someone in the neighborhood,” she said. “The myth is that it’s a guy in a trench coat unknown to the child, but in fact it’s rarely a total stranger. … Most people who are going to help a kid are strangers.”
Sabin advised parents to practice “what if” scenarios with their children to give them experience making decisions that might help them escape danger. What would the child do if suddenly separated from a parent at a mall? How to respond if, while playing games in a video arcade, an adult man approaches?”Make it non-threatening,” Sabin said. “You don’t want to make a child afraid. If any of us are afraid, you can’t think clearly.”McBride said children should be tutored to identify adults, even if strangers, who might be able to help them – a sales clerk, for example, or virtually any mother with children of her own. Blanket fear of unfamiliar adults might actually be harmful, McBride said, citing the recent case of Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old boy lost in Utah’s Uinta Mountains who hid from rescue workers because they were strangers.McBride said children should be taught to extricate themselves as swiftly as possible from a situation that frightens or discomforts them, even if that entails brusque behavior.”That’s going to be tough for some parents,” she said. “You’re giving your children permission to be impolite if their safety is at stake.”The extent to which a child should physically resist – yelling, biting, kicking – may depend on circumstances, experts say. Sabin said such tactics could enable a child to escape – a Utah girl last week struck her abductor and he ultimately released her – or could backfire if attempted in an isolated area where the abductor had no fear of being noticed.John Mould, a special education teacher who has raised six children in the Philadelphia suburb of Ambler, said he’s impressed upon them that resistance might be the best option. “Even when they’re younger, it’s well-documented that being loud and fighting is the thing to do,” Mould said.
With children ranging from 12 to 21, Mould and his wife have gone through a steady process of granting each child increasing independence – accompanied by precautions.”We let them know when we turn things over to them,” he said. “Now that you can do this by yourself, here are the rules you should follow.”One recent complication, he said, was the anxiety prompted by the mass transit bombings in London, followed by warnings from Mould’s wife that the children should be alert to terror attacks in public places.”At this point, the list of things to be scared of gets so long that it loses credibility,” Mould said. “Either the kids get a sense of paranoia or they say forget it – there are too many things to worry about.”Joe Kelly of Duluth, Minn., whose experience raising twin girls propelled him to the leadership of an organization called Dads and Daughters, said parents face constant challenges as they try to instill prudence, but not fear, in their children.”There’s a lot of fear-mongering out there,” he said. “You wonder how many of the decisions you’re making in your parenting are coming out of fear.”
Kelly recalled letting his daughters, now 24, take the bus unescorted for the first time as preteens heading to ballet lessons.”There was a part of me that was terrified,” Kelly said. But “they’d proven themselves to be responsible; it wasn’t likely they would do something foolish. That doesn’t erase the risk, but you can’t encourage them to live their life in fear of reality.”—On the Net:National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: http://www.missingkids.com/Vail, Colorado