Situational awareness, not “stranger danger” is the best strategy for keeping kids safe

The concept of “stranger danger” is a common one for parents to employ when trying to ensure their children are safe.

But that practice is limiting and doesn’t take into account a key factor: If harm is done to a child, it is more likely to be by someone known to the family, and sometimes someone who is trusted.

I know this doesn’t fit the common narrative in our society, but the fact is that predators, particularly sexual predators, tend to be people who are friends or acquaintances. Actual abductions by strangers are rare.

What’s more, there are plenty of times strangers can be helpful to children, such as police officers in uniform or staff members at a zoo if a child is lost.

So what I advocate is situational awareness for children. This approach helps instill in children the need for them to be aware without shifting to paranoia. Children need to be reassured that they are going to be protected but they also need to be empowered to be part of that protection.

It is a good idea to help our children understand their surroundings and what is acceptable in terms of adult behavior.

Emphasize to your children that they can say “no” to an adult when they are uncomfortable or when an adult is trying to force them to do something they know is wrong. Adults never need to ask a child for help. If an adult asks a child for help finding a puppy turn and run away.

Prepare your child for the worst case scenario: If someone tries to grab them, do everything possible – bite, kick, scream, make noise and run as fast as they can – to get away or get attention.

There are practical ways to prepare your child to be aware of surroundings. For one, play memorization games with them to help them pay attention, such as asking what color was the car next to us in the parking lot, or the color of someone’s hair while we were standing in line. It’s a fun way to get their minds focused on awareness. I now find my kids noticing things I didn’t.

Teach kids to introduce themselves to people, look someone in the eye and say their name at least loudly enough to be heard. Why? It shows attention and an appropriate amount of assertiveness. Research shows that offenders tend to choose victims who exhibit victim behavior – not paying attention, head down, walking with no purpose.

Lastly, I want to share a caution with parents about Facebook. It is so tempting to share happy moments but be aware of how information can be used. If you put a picture of your daughter on Facebook wishing her a happy birthday by name, that is all information that can be used to try to entice a child. Limit the information you use and, most importantly, use privacy settings.

While we don’t want to induce paranoia, we want to encourage common sense and paying attention to surroundings as sure ways for parents and children to feel secure.