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May 30, 2014 at 12:40 PM

Last Saturday my 5-year-old daughter saw her friends go by on their way to shul, and she decided to try to catch up to them, before the rest of our family was ready to go. She’s walked this residential-area half-block daily for some time, often by herself or with her same-age sister. This time, though, a minute later she returned to the house in tears, and rushed into her mother’s arms. Through the open door, we heard a strange woman’s voice shouting at us, “She was walking by herself.” My wife answered, “We know where she was, we gave her permission.” And the strange woman shouted back, “No! Not allowed!” Then she disappeared.

Moments later, a police officer came by. He apologetically explained that he was obliged to come because someone called in expressing concern about our child, and mentioned that the caller was well known to him. He didn’t use the word “nut” but implied as much. He was also kind enough to tell my daughter that she hadn’t done anything wrong.

After the police officer left, we got the story from my daughter, in tearful bursts. She had been walking to shul, was about halfway there, when a car stopped and this strange woman got out, walked up to my daughter, and took her hand. “Where is your house?” the woman demanded. My daughter pointed, and the woman ordered, “Show me!” over and over as she walked my daughter back home, never letting go of her hand.

We also learned that a couple of other cars have stopped too, as my daughters walk by themselves this short distance. But the other times, the driver will just open the window, ask, “Are you lost?” and then, satisfied with the answer, go on their way. I was really pleased to hear this – to realize that some strangers are looking out for our children, or indeed for any child they may see. (I recognize that the “mean lady” was also well-intentioned, though her actions were hurtful.)

We used this event as another opportunity to talk to our children about some of the world’s dangers and how to protect themselves. We told them that if some stranger is just asking if they’re lost, or asking for directions, it’s okay to answer. But if that person starts to get out of the car, RUN. “But what if they run faster and catch me?” “You’ll get a head start, and they might not want to run after you. Also, other people will see them running after you, and call the police.” The girls were skeptical, but also looking forward to the practice session planned for later in the day.

Which we did, to great enjoyment. We practiced various scenarios with the girls walking down the sidewalk and me pulling up in the car and saying or doing different things, leading to them either responding, or running away, depending on the situation. At one point in the practice, the girls had successfully run back to our driveway and were waiting for their congratulations and the next challenge. When I pulled up, I noticed a car pulled over nearby, and said, “Hold on, I think those people are lost.” My wife (who had just come outside) went over to give them directions. Soon she returned, and told us, “They had seen you pull over near the girls, and were watching to see if you were trying to do something bad. The driver had her phone in her hand, ready to call the police.”

“See?” I told my children, “If you run away and the bad person chases you, people will see it and call the police.” Thank you, thank you! to that driver, to the others who have asked my children if they’re lost, and to all the people who care about children enough to actually do something about it.

“The problem,” I said to my wife later that day, “is that most child abuse doesn’t come from strangers.”

Which is why this had been our first “stranger danger” lesson. Our prior practice sessions had been focused on how to protect themselves from non-stranger abuse.

Of course, it helps to know how to do this. Not every parent happens to be a child psychologist. A few months ago I was hanging around with a group of parents while the kids were playing. I mentioned one of these practice sessions, and another father blanched. He said “I know we should be doing that too, but I don’t have a clue how to go about it.”

I was glad to be able to refer this father to the Mama Bear Effect web site, which provides guidance on how to raise abuse-resistant children, including detailed instructions for what to do with kids at various ages.

I will admit that even I (the child psychologist) was a bit trepidatious about teaching my kids about abuse prevention. I worried that it would scare them. But guess what? They were already scared. Ever since the Newtown school massacre, they’ve been painfully aware that there are “bad guys” out there. I was relieved to discover that the self-protection practice sessions have been fun and empowering for the kids. Now they feel less afraid, not more. Phew!

And I know: if we as a community really cared about children, we’d do so much more, right? That’ll be the topic of a future post on this blog. This time around I’m focused on what’s good, because that’s how the recent events hit me.

So teach your children well. And let’s continue to watch out for each other’s kids.



Tags: trauma prevention parenting child abuse prevention
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Posted by Andrea B. Goldberg, LCSW on
Your approach to teaching your children how to stay safe, through fun practice sessions is wonderful. In addition to being empowering in the moment, it will also make it much more likely that your children will remember and be able to apply the lesson if they are faced with this situation in the future.

There was a research study that demonstrated that even children who were taught stranger danger still went with a man who asked them to help him look for his lost kitten. If everyone used your approach, the lesson would sink in much more and make it much more likely children would be able to remember and apply the lesson and stay safe.

I hope you and your family have a good yom tov!
Posted by Ricky Greenwald on
Andrea, thanks for your kind words and insights. I would add that the learning doesn't happen just in a single event, but develops over time. For example, yesterday the kids "went along" with each other doing something they knew better than, and afterwards we helped them to figure out (for themselves) how important it is to pay attention to yourself when you know that something is wrong. And the next time we practice the stranger danger stuff, I'm going to try that lost kitten trick :^)
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