A few of my friends have mentioned recently that they are teaching their children not to talk to strangers. I instantly felt like I was missing a trick because I have never thought to have those conversations with my own children.
Naval gazing in the shower I realised that my dreadful parenting omission was down to a combination of life experience and believing that Stranger Danger (how lucky for the marketing team that those words rhyme) is an overblown concept.
That’s not a contentious statement by the way, according to key organisations, the instance of children abused by strangers runs between 5 and 10% worldwide*.
So why the emphasis?
Well it’s easier to believe in a bogeyman that looks a bit funny, or talks a bit strange, or smells a bit nasty. It’s more palatable to believe that the family is a safe place to be and that nobody you know and love could betray you in such a horrific way.
But it’s not the truth.
Pretending that it is the truth not only distorts the meaning of danger for children but it robs them of one of the most important skills they will need growing up.
For reasons I will go into next week, Alfie and I were at a briefing session last night. After an hour of learning about recycling with some very “alternative looking” people, the lady asked if there were any questions.
Up shot Alfie’s hand and a very self possessed little voice said “Excuse me”.
A room full of earnest adult eyes turned and waited in silence for him to begin.
Please don’t have a brain fart, I silently prayed.
“Some people” he began indignantly, “put milk bottles in their bin with the lid on!”*
The room collectively melted.
The lady said “I know, who does that, right?”
And the conversation moved on leaving a little boy with a reinforced belief in the value of what he has to say and a mama who could have cried with pride.
Pride because my son is developing the skill to judge people and situations on a deeper level than how they look or smell or talk.
An attacker will not come for my children with a hunched back and warty nose and smelling slightly of wee. There won’t be a big sign hanging round their neck. I can’t give my children a checklist that will keep them safe.
|The notable exception to the stranger rule|
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved
So better just be safe and not talk to any strangers at all, right?
I can’t do that either.
What if one of my children gets lost and needs to ask for help? Longer term, how am I preparing them to live in society if I fill them with fear of strangers?
Some of the most exciting experiences I have had have been with strangers: I have laughed until I cried striking up a conversation with the person in the next seat. I have an amazing friend who I know for no other reason than we bumped into each other on a dance floor one night and one of us was carrying a box of red wine. I travelled to LA on my own and spent a blissful Christmas at a youth hostel.
Because I wasn't scared of strangers.
I believe it is more valuable to my children to learn lessons about bodily integrity and person limits than about fear.
I believe they stand a better chance of staying safe if they have the experience and context of good stranger interaction: After all, good judgement is a learned skill like any other that gets stronger the more we practice.
And the rest? That 5-10% who fall prey to the roaming predator? As hard as it is to accept, I have to leave that one to fate.
*This is a big recycling no-no, it devalues the resale value of the plastic