How do we teach children to be aware of, yet not scared by strangers?

How can we be sure that our kids know how to recognize danger and escape, and how do we talk to them about protecting themselves without making them anxious?

 Children wear a masks and wait for US President Joe Biden to visit her pre-Kindergarten class at East End Elementary School to highlight the early childhood education proposal in his Build Back Better infrastructure agenda in North Plainfield, New Jersey, US October 25, 2021.  (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
Children wear a masks and wait for US President Joe Biden to visit her pre-Kindergarten class at East End Elementary School to highlight the early childhood education proposal in his Build Back Better infrastructure agenda in North Plainfield, New Jersey, US October 25, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

We all anxiously read the articles this week about the pedophile who tried to drag an 11-year-old boy into his car in Ramat Gan. We’ve all wondered how in our modern society this still happens in broad daylight. And we all asked ourselves if there is anything we can do to ensure that our kids know how to recognize the danger? And how do we ensure that we don’t do more harm than good? If we make our kids anxious will this make them more alert?

This is a complex task, and in order to succeed in doing it right, it’s important that we know that part of our parental authority is to mediate reality. And in reality, there are people who can harm our children, so we must be sure that we give them tools to cope. However, even in a conversation about this complex subject, it’s very important to put everything in the right proportions. It exists in reality but it’s very uncommon.

What are kids being told?

On shows and in movies the "bad guys" are dressed in black and have a wicked face and a scary laugh. They’re easy to spot. When talking to children about stranger danger, it’s important to explain that in reality, bad people can look completely normal. They act nicely and offer gifts. Therefore, we never talk or walk with people we don’t know, even if they say that they know mom and dad.

It’s important to clearly explain to kids that if a stranger talks to them or offers them things, they should stay away and look for the closest adult with kids to ask for help. It’s important that the message be to look for the closest person who can help, and if the first person won’t, ask another. Don’t give up and keep searching and asking until an adult takes charge of the situation.

How do we make sure kids tell us if something bad happens?

THE SWINGS were beckoning her: Kids at play in Hadera.  (credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)THE SWINGS were beckoning her: Kids at play in Hadera. (credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)

We all want our kids to want to share with us both good and bad, give us a peek into what they experience at school and with friends. For that to happen, we need to model sharing. Talk to your kids routinely about experiences, events, feelings and thoughts. When you share, the chances increase that they’ll also share.

When the child talks about situations that upset us (for example, "Today I didn’t feel like going into class"), we’ll first be happy that they spoke up, and even say "thank you for sharing", and only later in the event we’ll lay down rules, like that attending school is mandatory. We want kids to know that we’re  the address for everything. When they talk to us it’s important to listen seriously and with due respect to the problems and situations that they raise. We want to be a safe haven, and listening carefully develops trust.

Teach children to know their limits

It’s very important to teach children from an early age that "my body is my possession", and that no one other than a doctor or parent is allowed to touch private organs. With young kids show them examples in a book, or in the bath point out areas which must be kept covered.

Psychologist Nigel Latta, who specializes in child care, talked about the child's ability to identify what he feels uncomfortable with. Through talking to kids about situations we teach:

There will be uncomfortable situations.

They can always resist or refuse touch that is unpleasant, to say "I don’t like it" even if a friend pulls or does something that creates discomfort.

If the refusal is ignored, look for an adult they know or someone else who can help stop unwanted advances and help the child get to a safe place.

And one last thing: we know our kids. If we see that something has changed in behavior - let's check. The child's behavior is language. We need to be aware of changes and try to understand what’s behind the matter. And if we have no idea other than suspicion, and our kids won’t share, ask for guidance from a parent counselor or medical professional.

Mor Shamir is a parent counselor at the Adler Institute who counsels couples with attention and concentration issues.