children talking to strangers

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I was reading an online parenting forum the other day, where people were discussing what age they allow their children to go to the park by themselves and several things struck out to me. Some of the women on that particular forum were recommending checking the sexual offenders lists   as though a predetermined list could tell them whether it is safe or not for their children to be out and about, or who to warn their kids against. I think such lists are useless and cruel as many young men are classified as sexual offenders for statutory rape and are no danger whatsoever to park-going children.

Other mothers on the forum were suggesting that their children would be able to tell who the weirdos are and stay away from them. I wondered, would children really know? How would they judge who is dangerous or not? I’m an adult, and I have trouble with that at times. I worry that children (and adults) would judge people just on social skills or visible mental illness and that those aren’t necessarily the best ways of judging. There are socially awkward people who are not dangerous, and on the other hand there are plenty of people who are very smooth and friendly who wouldn’t necessarily be safe. I would rather teach my children about situations that are dangerous than to encourage them to classify people as dangerous or not.

I know that saying “don’t talk to strangers” doesn’t work either, and I know this partly because of an experience I had once when I was living in Montreal. I took my children regularly to an outdoor swimming pool and often when we were there a young girl would approach me and coo over my baby. She was there with a summer day camp program, and she was lonely, so we’d visit. About the fourth time we met up there one of the day camp workers finally noticed she was talking to me and said to her that she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. Her response? “This isn’t a stranger, she’s a friend.” The daycamp worker never inquired as to whether I was a friend of the girl’s mother (an approved friend) but just left us visiting. Obviously I had no intention of taking the child, but it made me smile and laugh to see how the child interpreted the “don’t talk to strangers” instructions.

I want my children to know that it is okay for them to approach strangers and ask them for help when they need, because I figure it is safer for them to approach those they want than to wait and see who approaches them. If strangers approach them I want them to talk politely but maintain proper boundaries. I also want my children to understand how to set limits, and that they can say no to people – any people, whether friends or strangers when they feel uncomfortable.

More than fear of strangers approaching my children, I fear a world where we all fear one another. More than that, I fear that we judge people on superficial means deciding who is “safe” or not by how well people fit into our preconceived notions. I worry about the excluding of people who are different in some ways, and I’m thinking right now particularly about some people I know who suffer various forms of mental illness and social awkwardness, and find themselves shunned because of it. Children, the adults around them and the adults they will grow into, are too inclined to act as though those “weirdos” are dangerous, when they’re not.

Edward's outrageous costumes attract a lot of attention.I want to write about finding ways to accept those who are different into community and acknowledging that it is hard sometimes.  There’s times when people don’t recognize social cues and they talk too much or stand too close. There’s times when I’ve felt uncomfortable for a moment or two as someone’s asked personal questions, yet they are humans and they need to be included, with appropriate personal boundaries set where necessary.

I was pleased when I found a library book the other day that I could use in talking with my children about accepting strangers. Edward the “Crazy Man” tells about a boy noticing a homeless person who dresses in hilarious costumes. The boy becomes a man and eventually meets up with Edward again, giving him a job as the crazy man he still is. The book identifies the man as suffering from schizophrenia and at no point is he really cured. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in homelessness and poverty, as well as mental illness. The pictures are cute, maybe a little over-the-top at times but childish and happy. The last page of the book invites children to send their own pictures of costumes to the author, care of the publisher.

Edward the “Crazy Man” is another book published by Annick Press Ltd. For a long time I never noticed which publishing companies published which books, but I have started to notice Annick Press Ltd because their books really stand out as being relevant and creative.

How do you encourage your children to interact with others? How do you keep them safe? Do you have experiences with strangers that stick out in your mind?

(Updated to add: attempting to accept those with differences became an issue for me at a different time. You can read more about this topic here.)

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4 thoughts on “children talking to strangers

  1. Boy, this is certainly a concern in today’s world. Tough explaining to a child that we live in a world that isn’t always nice. Using “Edward the Crazy Man” is one way to approach this topic. Thanks for sharing. Cheryl – Hop Hostess

  2. Thank you Christy for a really insightful review and a great book. I struggle in my thoughts about this subject too very often. I want Gigi to grow up with a compassionate heart, able to accept and include those that may not always be as “normal” as society dictates, but as far as maintaining safety, that is another fear altogether. I guess teaching her to discern the social cues and appropriateness of our interactions with others continually through her younger years will hopefully help her to understand when a person is friend or foe. I have always been really intuitive about this, so I can only hope that I will pass that on to her but still maintain compassion and understanding. I haven’t really noticed book publishers either but now you have mentioned it, I will be on the look out. Thanks for linking in to the Kid Lit Blog Hop. You have given me food for thought. Cheers Julie

  3. Great post Christy! This is very relevant to our lives because we live in a neighborhood that is best described as “ecclectic”. We have diversity on every demographic characteristic you can think of and we have lots of “weirdos” in our neighborhood. The great thing about being in this neighborhood is that it is all normalized so my kids don’t really have “fear” of people per say. The only thing I teach them is to be aware of their surroundings. For example, we have some people walking around who are definitely high on drugs and my concern is that they are unpredictable. So, the best thing I can do as a parent is to discuss with my kids that they need to be aware of the people around them and to watch for signs of “volatility”. I regularly take the kids out to give the “share” part of their allowance to some of the homeless people living on our streets and we sometimes bring them cookies too. Other people’s “weird” is our “normal”. Thanks for linking in the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

  4. I loved reading this. Everything you said makes sense and the next time my mother badgers me as to ” how can you let them go that far(3 blocks) by themselves? ( three of them)”,I am going to direct her to this post.Thank you.

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