stranger danger child abductionI don’t know about you, but the words “Stranger Danger,” or even the mere thought of child abduction, make me catch my breath just a bit and make me instantly alert. After all, if you are like me, my greatest fear is that something would happen to one of my children and I would not be there to protect him or her. I freely admit that I worry about my children when I do not know where they are. Some people might think that I am over-protective or that I worry too much. I, however, don’t believe that wanting to know my kids are okay makes me over-protective, necessarily. It means that I love them with such depth that I couldn’t stand the idea of them being in danger.

A couple of years ago, my youngest son was to walk home with one of his friends after school. I waited and waited, and he didn’t show up. I drove my car to the school and around the neighborhood and even to the friend’s house to see if he went there. He was nowhere to be found. I went to other friend’s houses also, and still nothing. I started to panic. A fellow neighbor friend saw my panic and helped me look. He drove around the neighborhood as well, and he finally found my son and his friend, who had decided to stop and play some games at the Community Center, not realizing the time. I was so relieved to see him that tears came to my eyes. I first hugged him and then of course scolded him for making me worry. Did I over react? I guess it depends. I do live in a relatively safe area, but that does not guarantee that my kids will be safe.

The term “Stranger Danger” and the phrase “Don’t talk to strangers” are slogans that every parent and school-aged child knew and lived by for generations. Today, however, not only are these phrases outdated, you might be surprised to learn that they are no longer being used or supported as a way to teach children to be safe and prevent child abduction from occurring.

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are many reasons why they do not support teaching the term “Stranger Danger” to children anymore. In a document they publish for parents, they explain that “Child Safety is more than a slogan.” They say that “when well meaning parents and professionals use the phrase, ‘Stranger Danger’, it mistakenly conveys that only strangers harm children.” It doesn’t educate them on how to stay safe. The sad truth is that the majority of child abductions are committed by someone that the child already knows.

Michelle Boykins, communications director at the National Crime Prevention Council said in an interview with Celeste Headlee, that “the predators that are after your kids try to make a connection with them before they actually grab them and try to abduct them. So they really are people they sort of know now.”  In fact, they say that once a person is around a child even once, that person may lose their stranger status with that child. In that case, stranger danger no longer applies. That’s why the way we teach our children need to change.

Most people rely on stereotypes to make sense of the world around them, including the people they meet. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “because the ‘Stranger-Danger’ method of teaching relies on stereotypes, it is too complicated for children. Children cannot maturely decide whether a person may be trusted. The truth is, most child molesters and abductors are regular-looking people, and many go out of their way to look friendly, safe, and appealing to children. So, instead of judging a person by appearance, teach kids to judge people by their actions.”

So what is a parent to do to keep their children safe? Experts say we as parents and caregivers need to change our language. Instead of teaching kids “don’t talk to strangers,” be proactive when they are with you and point out friends, neighbors, and places that are safe where they can go if they feel threatened in any way. In addition, point out those people in your community that can help them such as police officers, firemen, even trusted shop keepers.

It can also be helpful to play the “what if” game. Ask them what they should do if someone asks offers them a treat, a toy, or candy, asks them for help to find a puppy or lost keys, or even offers them a ride. Listen to their answers, and gently guide them to actions that keep them safe.

The Kid Smartz website, maintained by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, has come up with four rules that every child should learn and know to avoid being victims of child abduction.

Check First

Children should always check first with a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult before going anywhere, helping anyone, accepting anything, or getting into a car. Children love to help, but remind them that no adult should be asking a child for help.

Take a friend

Children should take a friend with them when going places or playing outside. There’s safety in numbers.

Tell people “no”

Children should tell people “no” if someone tries to touch or hurt them. It’s okay to stand up for themselves and to say no to an adult. Too many times we try to teach our children to be polite. Teach them that it’s okay to be rude if an adult makes them feel uneasy.

Tell a trusted adult

Children should always tell a trusted adult if anything makes them feel sad, scared, or confused. Teach children to trust their instincts and to run away if someone is making them uncomfortable. In addition, reassure them that you will help them if they need it.

Although it’s not possible to protect our children at all times and in all places, it is possible to teach them what to do in situations when someone has crossed the line with them. Remember that you are your child’s best resource for staying safe. It’s no longer enough to simply teach “Stranger Danger.” The time to teach your children about being safe is now, before anything happens. When we are proactive at making personal safety a regular routine we talk about with our kids, we can empower and protect them from potentially dangerous situations.