What do you do when a stranger moves into your neighborhood?
Not just the person you have not met, but a “real” stranger. The type who instills dread into the heart of every parent . . . the dangerous stranger. Kids are commonly taught not to talk to strangers. But when they think of a stranger, they usually picture someone who is scary looking, a villain, a masked burglar, or the bogeyman. Most of us do, don’t we?
We recently discovered that a new homeowner in our neighborhood is listed on the sex offender registry. He now lives four houses from ours. I can see his house from my back porch, and I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window as I sit outside and watch his driveway while my son plays in the back yard. He rides past our house daily on his way in and out of the neighborhood. I think of him as a very scary man, but he looks like a grandpa. He looks — well, “normal.”
So, how do I teach my kids the very real danger of the friendly-looking stranger without causing them anxiety? How do I gently un-shelter my sheltered kids enough to help keep them safe?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
How can you tell if someone is a “stranger?”
Well, here’s the thing — you can’t.
Teach kids that the way someone looks is no indication of whether or not they are “safe.” I teach my children that there are some adults that they can consider safe if they need help, such as police officers, store clerks, and other moms in our homeschool group. Practice how to find a safe adult, in case your kids are ever separated from you. When we are out somewhere, like a fast food restaurant, I encourage my children to go to the counter on their own for a drink refill or a pack of ketchup so they can practice talking to a safe adult while they are within my sight.
Enlist the help of your homeschool group, other trusted adults, and older siblings.
Along with our other neighbors with children, we have a watch system in place so that the kids are always supervised. If my son is at his friend’s house, one of the adults walks him home, and I do the same when his friends are at our house. When our homeschool group has a park day or is attending a field trip, all of the moms rally together to supervise the children. My older teen is aware of the situation down the street, and he is great about keeping tabs on his younger brother when they are outside.
Teach appropriate adult behavior.
No adult should EVER ask your child for directions, to help him find his lost puppy, to come in his house, to get in his car, etc. Teach kids that they should never approach a car. Remind them to always tell you immediately if an adult asks them for help or wants to talk to them.
Teach kids to be disrespectful.
I live in the South, and manners dictate that we respect our elders and avoid hurting people’s feelings. “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” are still used regularly in our culture. However, children should be taught that it is okay to be rude, run away, shout “NO!” and go in the house, scream, etc. if they ever feel that an adult is behaving inappropriately.
Guard your teens.
Going out-and-about gets easier as kids get older, and you no longer have to worry about keeping them at arm’s length. When my son was little, he was notorious for climbing out of his stroller as soon as it stopped. Shopping could be a real challenge.
Though they no longer have to hold my hand, my teens still need to be taught about “Stranger Danger.” Teens are more vulnerable in many ways due to social networking and greater independence.
Teach teens that an adult should not want to be their friend. Keep tabs on their internet activity. Know where they are when they are not with you. Establish a check-in system with your teen, and maintain a relationship of trust and communication with them. Teach teens, as well as younger children, that an adult should never ask them to keep something secret.