Many schools and parents use the mantra ‘Never talk to strangers’. It’s doubtful that this really helps. Everyone is a stranger at first; it’s all about the context of the meeting, and that’s hard to convey. But we do know that children are vastly more likely to come to harm and even be abducted by people they know than by people they don’t. We’d do much better to teach them the signs of people (strangers or not) who are behaving badly: touching them inappropriately, being overly personal, trying to get them alone, acting drunk, provoking others or recklessly wielding weapons. We need to help children practice refusal skills, disengagement skills and how to summon help. We need some new prevention mantras.
PART ONE – Strangers, friend or foe?
I had walked this same stretch of road already today. It’s a nice wide road, cobbled, with cafe bars on either side, people sitting in the sun drinking light Spanish beers.
The problem is the road has a fairly steep incline, as it should really, given it leads up to a 13th century Andalusian Royal Palace.
I was sure the Youth Hostel I was looking for was at the top of the street but I’d plodded up there twice and not found it. As I turned, again, probably looking confused, and a little sweaty under my backpack, I heard someone shout:
“Hey man, you need a place to stay?”
It was two relaxed looking Spanish guys, mid 20’s, tanned, stylish facial hair, friendly but not exactly gregarious.
Years of social training immediately threw up the “Don’t Talk to Strangers” warning light to my brain.
I said, my inability to lie overtaking my sensible automotive functions.
“Come with us, we have a place just round here.”
they said. Standing up from the table, had they paid for those beers?
We walked around the back of the cafe, down some of the narrower alleys winding between the old buildings. Swiftly we came to one long straight stone wall with a lone wooden door halfway along it.
No sign, no windows, no letterbox, no accredited youth hostel paperwork. Just a wooden door, a black circle and some white Moorish symbol painted in the circle that I didn’t understand.
I was fairly certain I’d walk through that door and never come back out. But I was there now, didn’t want to appear rude.
As they pushed open the door I stepped through and, for the first time, heard the acoustic guitar from upstairs. Pulling back the tie-dye mandala tapestry that hung in every internal doorway, I found a spare mattress in the room of ten multicoloured bunk beds. Following the music upstairs I was soon on an open top roof garden, cushy pillows on the floor, some guy in sandals playing Jim Morrison, one of my new bearded friends handing me a cold bottle of Sol. Oh yeah, and the most incredible view straight into the grounds of the Alhambra.
This was a Bohemian paradise above the bustle of modern day Granada and it was my blissful home for the next three days.
That was 13 years ago. I was 21, I had no kids.
Now, I’m 33, I have two kids.
“Daddy?” my 5 year old said.
“I know something about strangers.”
“Oh really?” I said.
Preparing myself to re-enforce the important social lesson he’d obviously learnt recently from his school, or childminder, or diligent 5 year old friend.
“Is it about if we should talk to strangers or not?”
“And should we talk to Strangers?”
“Err…yes, then maybe they will become our friends.”
I’m fairly certain this isn’t what his school would have taught him.
But maybe, he’s got a point.
“Don’t Talk To Strangers” is a phrase deeply set in the mind of most kids from an early age. It immediately sprung into my thoughts in Granada. Or in Prague when I had nowhere to sleep so pulled an all nighter, in the Cross Club and met two wonderfully interesting Czechs. Or just before I convinced two sisters in Nairobi to give my mates and I a tour of the local live music scene. Or when the couple beside my wife and I in a restaurant in Salzburg offered us a lift to “a club that’s not in the guidebooks” in their 1959 red and cream convertible Beetle.
I didn’t know any of these people but then, they didn’t know me either.
Each time there was a diligent 5 year old sitting on my shoulder and shaking his head. Yet each time he was proven wrong.
These strangers were great people!
Now obviously I was a grown (ish) man in those instances. That’s a different story to a kid being offered sweets by a random guy with a white van in the play park.
But, isn’t the stat that most child abductions happen by someone they know?
Who do you trust?
All too often now, watching the news, I feel like I’m constantly told what to fear and who to fear.
I don’t want to raise children who are afraid of the world. Children who presume the worst in people. Worse, children who judge people they’ve never met.
Of course their protection is important. I could never forgive myself if something happened to them. I’m not making light of that scenario at all. But, I also don’t want to create a falsely fearful world for them.
What if my son really believes that talking to strangers could turn them into friends? That’s a good thing, right? It’s called being social. That’s being positive, warm, and open minded.
Maybe my kids will grow up to be one of the people sitting at a kurbside table in Granada offering wanderers a place to stay. Or spotting the honeymooners struggling to order schnitzel and offering them a lift through moonlit old town with the top down. Maybe they’ll engage the homeless people on their streets with more than a “sorry mate” shrug. Maybe they’ll be the important friendly face a lost child in a supermarket is drawn to.
Maybe, I can help them maintain this innocent sense of optimism in people, alongside a healthy dose of common sense, and maybe a judo move or two, you know, just in case.
That should fare them reasonably well, right?
I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get that balance right yet, but, when my kid said:
“Daddy, we should talk to Strangers because they might turn into our friends,”
I didn’t correct him.
PART TWO – Strangers, what do you do about the bad ones?
I gave this blog post to my wife to edit, as is normal MadDadskillz procedure, and she sat me down to tell me a story.
Once upon a time, when she was about 9 years old, her group of 5 friends were playing on their street.
A man they did not know pulled up alongside them in his car and asked them for help.
He had, apparently, lost his puppy and all he wanted was one of them to get in his car and help him look for it.
My wife recalls sensing how bad this situation was and remembers keeping her distance.
One of her friends, slightly younger, moved towards the car, and my wife remembers shouting:
“Don’t go near the car”.
“I’m going to get my Daddy”
All 5 of them ran down the street to her house.
By the time her Dad got to the front garden, baseball bat in hand, the car had taken off at speed.
Given this frightening new take of the situation I decided to stop romanticising about my past adventures and do some reading.
There is a report called TAKEN, complied in 2013 by Parents and Children Together (PACT), which looked at the statistics for child abduction in the UK. Interestingly it found that 42% were by a stranger, 51% by a family member or known acquaintance (the rest were relationship unknown).
So that’s not as skewed a proportion towards the “known acquaintance” as I thought there would be. Although looking at relationship of abductor versus age of child we see that about 80% of Stranger abductions are aged 9-17.
Maybe my mental image of my 5 year old getting swiped from a playground is possibly less likely than when he is a teenager and walking home alone?
So who gets Abducted by strangers?
- Mean age is 11 years old.
- 75% of kids in the TAKEN study were female however another report found no significant differences between genders.
- Where ethinicty was reported, 87% of kids were white.
Under what circumstances do strangers try to abduct children?
- Almost all were outside (in the street or park).
- Almost 66% involved a car.
- 50% of victims reported being grabbed or dragged.
- While you’d assume that you are more vulnerable on your own, almost 75% happened when with other kids.
What did I learn from these stats? That what happened to my wife and her friends has happened to a lot of other people, and they were very lucky.
So If not Stranger Danger, then what?
The report contains a good section on what training programmes have previously focused on when preparing kids for this scenario.
They discuss “lures” from the “I have some toys in my car” to the “Your mother told me to come pick you up”. They suggest that focus on recognising these lures and then taking avoidance action is critical.
The avoidance action suggested is a mantra I hadn’t heard of but I like:
Yell, Run, Tell
(apparently my wife was ahead of her time)
If my kid does nothing more than get the hell out of the situation then I’ll be happy!
The hard thing for kids, I imagine, is the mixed messages. On one hand they are taught to not talk to strangers, on the other they are praised when being obedient and personable.
Of course my issue throughout has been the balance between the genuine threat of child abduction alongside the climate of fear regarding it. Thankfully, according to the “Beyond Stranger Danger” research I’m not alone:
“Nearly all respondents in this research – parents, teachers, police, PCSOs and voluntary sector workers – expressed concern about children’s, and parents’, anxiety and levels of fear.
Many shared a sense that whilst the impact of stranger child abduction can be devastating, it happens relatively rarely, and that measures intended to safeguard children in unusual events should not detract from children’s ability to interact with other people and their surroundings in their everyday life.”
The good news is that some organisations are trying to find this balance:
“CAP takes a fresh approach to assault prevention, aiming to reduce fear by focusing on what children can do, rather than on what they can’t.
When we teach a child how to cross a road, we focus on how they should cross a road safely, not on the graphic details of a road accident. When we teach children how to swim, we do not focus on drowning.
In the same way, the CAP project takes a fresh approach to actual or potential assault situations by focusing on a child’s rights and the positive action they can take in unsafe situations.”
SAFE, NOT SCARED – Our core value is that measures to tackle child abduction should promote a full and healthy childhood and should not create a climate of fear. We want children – and adults – to be confident and engaged in their communities, not isolated from them.
So how do I talk to my Mr. “All strangers can be friends” now?
As ever I wear two hats in these circumstances. I’m a man who has had many adventures and wishes the same fun, passion filled life for my kids. I’m also a parent and terrified by even the smallest possibility they might come to harm.
I’m still not entirely sure how I’ll phrase my next big parenting lesson for him but I feel a lot more armed and ready for it having read this report. I’ve also discovered a collection of short videos about “Feeling happy, Feeling safe” from kidscape.org.uk, which I may use as a springboard to our conversation, I’ll let you know how it goes.
If I’ve learnt anything it’s that the most important weapons I can arm my kids with is self-esteem, an ability to assess the situation, and trust in their instincts.
(It seems my wife has had those from an early age)
That and a few of the aforementioned judo skills, just in case!
(Co-incidentally my wife’s dad also taught her how to throw a mean right hook)