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Raising Our Kids: Safely Ever After…

by Pattie Fitzgerald

As a child safety advocate and prevention education consultant, it is my job to teach parents and children effective skills and tools to keep them safe from predators.

Time and time again at my workshops and seminars, parents approach me who simply aren’t sure how to talk to their kids, or what exactly they should say to them.

Years ago, whenever the subject came up about how to keep kids safe from predators, most parents relied on one basic rule which was drilled into our heads: “Don’t talk to strangers!” It seemed like pretty good advice at the time, and caring, concerned parents felt comfortable that they’d done their best to protect their children.

Fast forward to 2006. The plain truth is that, while well-intended, the outdated concept of “stranger danger” is simply not the best advice we can give our kids. In fact, it can do a disservice to a child under certain circumstances. However, there are many positive ways to empower our kids and clearly communicate to them some basic safety strategies in a non-threatening, easy-to-understand fashion.

It is my intention, by writing this monthly column, to answer many of the most frequently asked questions regarding child safety. I look forward to receiving your questions and comments. To submit a question for the column, please email me at

Q: I am just starting to approach my children with safety concepts and rules. Why is the notion of “stranger-danger” ineffective and possibly harmful to my kids?

A: When teaching our kids to protect themselves, it’s important to be aware of some very specific facts regarding sexual abuse and potential predators. The truth is that 90% of all childhood sexual abuse occurs by someone the child KNOWS and has some kind of established relationship with - i.e., a family member or friend, a neighbor, or coach. If we don’t teach children how to assert themselves when someone they know makes an inappropriate gesture, then we really aren’t arming them with the right skills and knowledge.

A better skill to teach children is that they have the absolute right to say NO! to anyone who makes them feel “uncomfortable” or “yucky”, or tries to touch them in any way that they don’t like, i.e. in a “bathing suit” area. In fact, teaching a child that they don’t always have to be “polite” to someone who is asking them to break the rules is a great way to empower that child and give them a strong sense of self-esteem. Studies show that children with a keen sense of self-worth are less likely to fall victim to a predator’s tricks.

Another reason why the “stranger-danger” idea doesn’t work is that it’s often a difficult concept for children to grasp. Ask a young child who a stranger is and you may be surprised by their answer: “a man with a mean face” or “someone who wears a black hat and a mask.”


A few years ago, in a controlled experiment with parental permission, a plain-clothes policeman approached various children in a park and asked them to accompany him to find his “lost puppy.” Several children started to go willingly. When asked later by their parents why they would go with a stranger, the children all had similar responses. “He wasn’t a stranger, he seemed nice.” “He said his name was Tom and he had a picture of a dog.” The idea that this person was a “stranger” (and that they shouldn’t leave with him) never crossed their minds. It’s one reason why the “stranger-danger” message just doesn’t arm kids with a clear-cut, tangible skill.

A more valuable concept to teach children is that they need to beware of “tricky people.” A “tricky person” can be someone you know or don’t know. A “tricky person” is someone who asks a child to break a safety rule or to do something that makes them feel bad. Kids need to know: it’s not what a person looks like, but what they ask you to do, that makes that person unsafe. Replacing the stranger-danger lesson with information about “tricky people” is a smart way to begin teaching your children some basic safety concepts that will serve them in a much better way.

For more information, or to book your own workshop, call 310-203-1330.

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