Most children are naturally very friendly. They enjoy interacting with people other than their immediate family. They become accustomed to seeing strangers everywhere, every day. The majority of strangers do not pose a risk. But, the fact remains that child abduction is a real thing. According to Parents.com, “every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted.” Parents can help safeguard their children by teaching them how to interact properly with strangers, which will also help them recognize and handle potentially harmful situations.
The most disturbing aspect of child abduction is that the perpetrator—in 75% of all kidnapping crimes—is a parent, close relative, or acquaintance of the family. In "Teach Your Children To Talk to Strangers", Dr. Peggy Drexler reports that “statistics show that the smallest percentage of abductions occurs at the hands of a person who is a stranger to the child. That is, in most cases, a child knows his or her kidnapper.” So, why is family abduction so prevalent? The California Child Abduction Task Force has found that the “motive for family abduction often results when either disputes over custody of a child cannot be satisfactorily resolved or when one parent abducts the child to express control, anger, or revenge over the other parent.” These crimes ultimately harm the children, who becomes “traumatized, forced into living like fugitives, or plunged into poverty, instability, and a life of deprivation and neglect.” In these cases, the only way to stop these abductions is for family and friends to step in and become involved immediately by alerting the proper authorities.
A stranger is anyone unfamiliar to you. Like everything else, there are good and bad strangers. Parents can point out safe strangers that can be observed in their public roles, like police officers and firefighters. More importantly, if they ever need help, they can seek out these recognizable figures (with instructions to always do so in a public place). What about the dangerous ones? Often, children will immediately associate scary-looking individuals—similar to the villains in their cartoons—as bad strangers. The The National Crime Prevention Council states that it’s precarious for children to do this. In actuality, “pretty strangers can be just as dangerous as the not-so-pretty ones. When you talk to your children about strangers, explain that no one can tell if strangers are nice or not nice just by looking at them and that they should be careful around all strangers.”
Should children develop stranger awareness on their own? Dr. Drexler appears to share this viewpoint on child-stranger interactions, in that parents should “help children develop [trustworthiness] on their own.” Further, she states that the “best way to keep kids safe is to teach them how to use their own instincts in determining who feels safe and who doesn’t, and encouraging them to have faith in their own abilities.” This is certainly great advice in allowing children to develop their own instincts, and it would be very beneficial if the child perceives a parent, friend, or family member to be harmful. Ultimately, any early interactions should be closely observed by a loved one.
I believe that children should be fully aware of stranger danger. As parents of 3-year-old twins, my wife and I are now taking steps to teach them about strangers and general examples of suspicious behavior. Up to this point, all they really want to do is converse and play with everyone, and the idea that there are bad people in this world that may try to hurt them hasn’t completely registered. With patience and time, our hope is that they come to understand that while the majority of strangers are good, they should still be cautious.
In addition to the resources cited herein, another site dedicated to child's safety is Kids Live Safe.