We hear it all the time: “It’s just not the same world out there anymore.” The world is supposedly a much scarier and more threatening place than the days of old when we would ride our bikes to the store with no parents in sight and blow our allowance money on candy and silly knick knacks with hardly a care. “We know better now,” we’re told. Keep a close eye on your kids at all times. Be aware of the dangers of others adults when you’re at the park or using a public restroom. Be wary of anyone who’s too friendly. Teach your kids about “stranger danger.” The world is so much more perilous these days and you simply cant be too careful when it comes to our precious children.
As a mom of two small boys you might be surprised to hear I disagree 100%. And whats more – I have never, and WILL never, teach my kids about “stranger danger.” Never. In fact, I hope to raise my kids to be ready and willing to interact with strangers in safe and appropriate ways, and I regularly encourage them to do so. I’m not a “free range parent” as they are currently known, but I admittedly make some parenting choices that would make many people these days more than a little uncomfortable.
Now before anyone starts calling CPS (or filling my inbox with hate mail) try to give me a minute to explain.
First off, I just want to take a minute to point out that the idea the world is less safe that the one we grew up in is a common misconception. You might be surprised to learn that all of the crime statistics actually show our children are SAFER today than we ourselves were back in our days. Don’t believe me? The folks over at Free Range Kids have compiled an incredible amount of independent research and statistics on this helpful page to show just how much safer our world really is. So why does it seem so much more dangerous? It all comes down to perception really. Crimes are more widely covered by the media these days in a way you simply didn’t see in our childhood. A child goes missing in a small town in Idaho and it can be national news coverage in the same day, and instantly flooding every social media feed for weeks. Statistics agree though: stranger abductions are remarkably rare, and the alarming majority of all crimes committed against kids are by family members or close friends. In short, the likelihood of a child being grabbed while walking to school or playing at the park is almost negligible.
On top of all this media coverage we also need to take into account how much internet hoaxes have exponentially compounded the problem. Have you seen the story making its way around Facebook for the past few months about supposed attempted sex trafficking of a child in a Target store with their mom? A little internet sleuthing quickly reveals the story is 100% false, and that both the store manager and the local police have absolutely zero record of any incidences even remotely related to the one described on Facebook (despite the story clearly describing the authorities being the one to tell the mom about the sex trafficking ring.) And this is far from an isolated incident: urban myths have taken on a new level of reach in the social media world, and parents everywhere are bombarded with messages of supposed dangers around every corner. It’s pretty understandable why parents everywhere are feeling afraid.
I can already hear some of the naysayers ready to write me an email response right now. “But Stephanie: we can just NEVER be too safe when it comes to our kids. Its always better safe than sorry, so why chance it?” Truthfully, I 100% understand where you are coming from, and I think its important to acknowledge our clear common ground here. We both LOVE our kids dearly, that much is apparent. We both want the very best for them in every possible way. Its just the details of how to accomplish this that we seem to disagree on.
Here’s the thing: I refuse to raise my kids in a spirit of fear.
I can’t agree with “better safe than sorry” when I truly believe there are immense negative consequences to teaching kids to be fearful of strangers and to be constantly alert to potential predators around every corner. Parents are complaining that cellphones have created a generation that doesnt know how to relate to each other, but have we ever stopped to consider what sort of effect it had when we told our children that strangers are all dangerous? Or that anyone who’s a little too friendly might be trying to take them or hurt them in some way? What effect do you think it creates on our sense of community when a child cant go out and play with his friends on his street because all of their parents believe they cant be trusted to be alone for any stretch of time without fear for their safety? Do most children even KNOW who lives on their street anymore? And how can we bemoan the textbook millennials who seemingly don’t know how to be independent and care for themselves these days when we are raising an entire generation of kids who are never allowed to leave the safety of parental supervision until they are one day thrust into adulthood with no real experiences to prepare them?
Am I advocating total free range parenting? Not exactly – but I can certainly see why the movement has been gaining steam. I won’t pretend to know what all families need to do, but I can share a little bit of what’s been working in mine.
We never taught our boys to fear strangers. In fact, most american families who have babies and toddlers begin by naturally teaching their kids the very opposite. We tell them to say hi to the lady who’s smiling at them in the grocery checkout lane. We encourage them to wave back at strangers. We model friendliness, polite interactions, and overall participation in the human community. We were pretty typical really. And then somewhere around preschool age we saw a shift: more and more parents teaching their kids about “stranger danger” and espousing the importance of doing the same. It was a confusing 180 to say the least, and for myself it felt very much at odds with my core values of celebrating the lost ideals of community and “it takes a village.”
So what have we done instead? We continue to teach our boys to confidently address and interact with strangers, but we also teach important safety ideals as well. When Aidan was about 3 or 4 for instance we started to quiz a lot of “what if’ scenarios. For example, we’d ask him “what should you do if you find matches on the ground,” and then we’d practice the answer. We’d play this little quiz game every now and then until it became a normal part of our interactions. It was at that point we started to add questions like “what should you do if someone you don’t know asks you to get into their car with them?” or “what should you do if someone grabs you at the mall and tries to take you away somewhere?” We practiced important distinctions like making sure to scream “this is a stranger” and “I need help this isn’t my dad” instead of just screaming (because how many times have we seen a parent dragging away a screaming toddler and haven’t given it a second thought.) We started to introduce ideas like the difference between tattling and telling, and between a surprise and a secret, and how we cant ever keep a secret from our mom and dad no matter who might ask us to. We talked candidly about body privacy, respect for other peoples bodies, and age appropriate issues of consent, and we modeled with friends and relatives that our boys were always the boss of their own body and whether or not they wanted to show someone physical affection. We even introduced a secret family password and made sure he felt confident enough to ask for it whenever appropriate.
We gave Aidan all these safety tools, but we framed them with our confidence in him rather than a fear of all the evil out there. We didn’t spend any lengthy time discussing the people who might try to hurt him, and we were very very careful not to give him the impression we were fearful for him. We taught him that he was brave and smart and capable and that he had all the tools and knowledge to make good choices out there. Then when we were confident that Aidan understood all these ideas inside out and backwards? We began to give him more chances to test out his independence and have more responsibility. We started to let him go into the public men’s room on his own while I waited outside and respected his desire for privacy and independence. This year we started to allow him to walk the two doors down to the school bus stop on his own and walk the two doors back from the bus on his own as well. And we’ve seen a marked increase not only in his self esteem this past year, but also in his own sense of personal responsibility. My mother watched the boys during my recent conference trip and was amazed to see that Aidan gets himself up in the morning to an alarm, follows a morning schedule to dress himself and feed himself and his brother breakfast, and is ready to leave for the bus right on time when his alarm goes off again at 9:00am. He needed no help and was totally responsible for his own self care in the morning. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think this growth in personal responsibility wasn’t directly tied to the independence we’ve been giving him and the confidence we’re working to instill in him.
Am I writing all this to say that I think my method is the “right” way? Not at all. I will say that I think we’re seeing a generation of kids that are disconnected from others, lack any real empathy for people outside their direct circle of contact, and simply lack the independent skills and personal responsibility to transition successfully into adulthood. Is “stranger danger” to blame? Not entirely – but it’s certainly not helping the issue either. We can do so much better by our children than to raise them in fear. We can do SO much better than teaching them to prioritize safety above community at all costs. Deeper than that, we can remind our kids that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but he gave us the power to be bold and to rest comfortably in our faith in Him. I know God has a plan for my kids, and I know he has my boys safely in His grip even when I’m not there to watch over them. I do understand that evil exists in the world, but I refuse to raise disconnected children who are so worried about their own personal safety and needs that they never get a chance to reach outside their bubble and impact a hurting world around them. I want my boys to know I have confidence in them. I want them to be brave in situations that could be uncomfortable and learn to handle confrontation without feeling helpless. I want them to gain a strong sense of personal responsibility and pride in their independence. I want them to feel compassion and love for people who may not look like them, talk like them, or share anything in common with them other than being created by the same God who loves them. I don’t want to raise my kids in the spirit of fear, but in a boldness of faith and a strength of character.
And “stranger danger” simply doesn’t doesn’t fit with any of those goals.