Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 50 years, you've probably heard the term “stranger danger” at some point. Portrayals of this concept often include a creepy middle-aged man who stalks children in public, waiting for an opportunity to snatch them from right under their parents' noses. We're conditioned to believe that these strangers are preparing to strike at any moment, whether it's outside a school, in the mall, or at a park. This imagery has been used time and time again in movies, TV shows, and even public service announcements. But where did it come from, and is it realistic?

Can you spot the

Can you spot the “bad guy” in this screenshot from the PSA linked above?

This memorable rhyme appears to have originated in the early 1960s as part of a movement to make children aware of the risks of abduction and sexual assault, and it persists to this day as part of the common lexicon. Much like the myth about an epidemic of poison or sharp objects in Halloween candy, a tiny number of real incidents has led well-meaning adults continue to teach it, and it continues to appear in the multitude of pop culture references we mentioned. You may think there's nothing wrong with reminding kids not to be excessively trusting of those they don't know, and there's truth to this assertion. But the concept of stranger danger carries some potential danger of its own, and an increasing number of experts are advising against teaching it to children.

What's Wrong with Stranger Danger?

According to experts, the first problem with stranger danger is that it implies that strangers are the most likely to perpetrate crimes against children, when in reality there is substantial evidence to the contrary. A study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recorded 115 “stereotypical kidnappings” perpetrated by strangers or slight acquaintances in the United States in 2011. In contrast, a total of more than 500,000 juveniles were reported missing that same year; the vast majority of these were runaway incidents, with only 9,611 listed as involuntary (i.e. abduction or kidnapping).

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Source: “Characteristics of Crimes against Juveniles” by David Finkelhor & Anne Shattuck

As for the bigger picture beyond abductions, a study of crimes against juveniles in 2008 by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that 10% of reported violent crimes against children were committed by strangers. 85% were committed by family or acquaintances; the remaining 5% were unidentified. The authors of the study specifically addressed the concept of stranger danger, calling it “far from sufficient” because “most offenders against juveniles are known to the victim.”

The second problem is that stranger danger tends to go along with unrealistic portrayals of evil strangers — for example, the shadowy man sitting in an unmarked panel van outside an elementary school, offering free candy to any kid who will go for a ride in his van. This may lead children to trust attackers who don't fit this stereotype, such as a friendly teenager or elderly woman. The National Crime Prevention Council states, “It’s common for children to think that “bad strangers” look scary, like the villains in cartoons. This is not only not true, but it’s dangerous for children to think this way. Pretty strangers can be just as dangerous as the not-so-pretty ones.”

Stranger danger crime children kids abduction kidnapping preparedness 3

Above: The “Free Candy” comedy sketch from FND Films pokes fun at the idea that an overtly creepy stranger is roaming the streets looking for kids.

A statement issued by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) titled “Stranger-Danger” Warnings Not Effective at Keeping Kids Safer calls the phrase “an outdated and misleading message” and clearly explains its stance: “The NCMEC does not support the “stranger danger” message. The majority of cases have shown most children are not taken by a stranger, but rather are abducted by someone they know … NCMEC believes it is time for everyone to retire use of the “stranger-danger” message.”

What's the Alternative?

Although the concept of stranger danger has fallen out of favor, it's essential to educate and prepare children for real-world threats that may include assault, sex offenses, and kidnapping/abduction. While strangers are unlikely to be the perpetrators of these crimes, they still occur, and adults must teach children how to recognize warning signs. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to teaching them the oversimplified doctrine of “never talk to strangers.”

Kyle D. Pruett M.D., a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, offered some advice in an article he wrote for Psychology Today:

  • Strengthen children’s sense of self and confidence in their ability to speak for themselves, ask for help when they need it and say ‘no’ when they are scared.
  • Welcome children’s natural discomfort around strangers.
  • Encourage the sense that children can help be agents in their own safety.
  • Teach kids that there are certain adults whom they don’t already know that can be helpful when they are lost or worried [such as] police, security guards, and cashiers.

mother hugging her sad child

NCMEC published a document titled Personal Safety for Children – A Guide for Parents with the following tips:

  • Know your children’s daily activities and habits.
  • Encourage open communication. Let your children know they can talk to you about any situation.
  • Set boundaries about places they may go, people they may see, and things they may do.
  • Reinforce the importance of the “buddy system.”
  • It’s OK to say NO – tell your children to trust their instincts.

NCMEC also recommends teaching these lessons through the use of role-playing scenarios:

“Whether it is checking first with a trusted adult, taking a friend, or avoiding and getting out of potentially dangerous situations, there are easy “what-if” scenarios you may practice with your children to make sure they understand and “get it.” Make outings to a mall or the park a “teachable moment” to make sure your children understand the safety messages and are able to use them in real-life situations. Children will begin to learn what to do if they become lost or are in danger by practicing these “what-if” scenarios with you on a regular basis. You can also use these opportunities to reassure your children you are there for them, and remind them there are other people who also are able to help them.”

As children get older, they can also be taught skills that all prepared individuals should develop: situational awareness, threat identification, escape and evasion, and various forms of self-defense.

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