It pays to teach children about strangers

By Angela Dove | Apr 19, 2012

Would your kids avoid a stranger trying to abduct them? My son did.
Here’s the story. (And tips on how to prepare your child!)
The woman in the car didn’t see my husband. Instead, she saw my 7-year-old son, seemingly alone on the sidewalk outside of the store. She pulled her car up to the curb next to him and called out, “Come here, little boy! Do you want to pet my puppy?”
My son shouted “No!” and backed away just as my husband rounded the stone pillar outside the building where he’d been watching our son run off some of his shopping boredom. The woman caught sight of my husband. “My puppy really is friendly,” she said with obvious discomfort, then drove off. Quickly.

A larger danger
Now let’s be clear about this: I could describe the woman. I could describe the car. I could name the place where we were. But all of that might give the impression that the danger inherent in this situation is coming from one person in one location. That’s not true. While we gave that information to the police, the fact is, we as parents cannot identify all the dangers facing our children. To pretend we can is to offer them and ourselves a false sense of security—to potentially disastrous results. So instead, let me say this: My son was prepared. He did what he was supposed to, in part because we had acted out this exact same scenario with him and his sister.
As a mom I resent having to tell my kids their world contains people who would take great pleasure in hurting them. I don’t want that to be true, but I don’t have the power to change it. Instead, my only power is to give them tools to protect themselves when those dangers arise. That’s what my mom did, and it worked.
I was 10 when a stranger pulled to the curb ahead of where I was walking home alone from school. My mom had warned me and had acted out scenarios with me, so instead of being ignorant of the danger, I veered off the sidewalk and up to the closest front door; that car peeled away from the curb so fast the tires left dark marks on the street. The memory of that moment was enough to impel me to talk to my kids about the dangers of abduction pretty early in their lives.

Training your kids
While it’s important to talk to your kids about “stranger danger,” giving your kids the experience of acting out dangerous moments will prepare them better than your words. Think of it like a fire-drill. You can tell your kids, “If the fire alarm goes off, immediately leave the house, go next door to Mrs. Thompson’s, and call 911.” But many families (and every school) practice by walking the kids out of the house. Actions reinforce information, especially in children. So just like walking your kids through a fire drill, you should also act out the most popular ways strangers may try to lure them toward a vehicle or into a secluded area.
First tell your children what to do if approached by a stranger. Shout. Run. Get to a crowded area or another adult.
Second, have a parent or grandparent—a trusted adult—use the following lines on your kids.
“Do you want to come pet my puppy/kitten?”
“Can you help me find my lost puppy/kitten?”
“Do you want some candy?”
“I’m lost. Can you give me directions?”
“I’m friends with your mom/dad and they asked me to give you a ride to where they are.” (For this approach, make sure your kids know (1) you will never send a stranger for them and (2) any family friend who is really supposed to get them will know your family’s secret safety word. Tell them, “Even if nice Mrs. Thompson says we asked her to get you, do NOT go with her unless she knows our secret safety word, APPLESAUCE.”)
Some abductors will forgo any friendliness and instead prey on a child’s fear. They may say, “Get in the car now or I’ll hurt you.”  “—or I’ll kill you.”  “—or I’ll kill your family.” They may even have a weapon.
In each of these situations, have your child shout “No!” and head toward the nearest adult.
At our house we even placed our hand around our kids’ wrists and talked about what to do if a stranger tried to grab them. Sometimes adults and children alike can freeze in panic if their would-be abductor grabs them. It’s a different level of psychological play at that point, but survivors know not to give up the fight at that point.
When practicing the grab scenario, we had our kids shout, “This is a stranger! This is not my parent! This is a stranger!” (Kids shouldn’t just rely on shouting “Help!” as other adults might possibly believe they are unruly children being removed from public by a frustrated parent.) In our re-enactment we skipped the part where our kids kick or hit the stranger, but we made certain they understood they should do anything in their power to get away, or at least slow the person down while drawing as much attention to them as possible.

Real-life happy ending
Seven-year-old Brittney Baxter of Georgia put these skills to the test when a stranger in WalMart tried to abduct her on February 9, 2012. She screamed. She kicked. She hit. And the guy dropped her—and was arrested within the hour. There are a ton of heartbreaking stories out there, but parents wanting to empower their kids with a real life happy ending might want to share Good Morning America’s coverage of the story: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/girl-fights-off-abductor-walmart-15545656
Our family, too, celebrated a happy ending. Even though my son was never in danger—his dad was nearby and watching the whole time—he nevertheless did exactly what he was supposed to do. He yelled. He got to an adult. He remembered the safety rules. And you better believe he got high-fives and ice cream after that.

Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin Group, 2009). For information about television, radio, and personal appearances visit www.AngelaDove.com.

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