As children, many of us were told, “Never talk to strangers.” We were also told that strangers can come in innumerable forms, that everyone we did not directly know was to be considered a stranger, and that they could therefore be a danger to our well being. In the years that followed this method of teaching children personal safety became known as “stranger danger.” And while it made sense on a surface level and served to quell the fears of parents, it did very little to actually protect children from adult predators. Unfortunately, today this antiquated method is still being taught as the primary personal safety tool in many kids’ martial arts and self defense schools.
When peering further into this flawed maxim of never talking to strangers we see the problems that emerge. First, it just doesn’t work. Kids strive to mimic their parents as a natural way of learning. The traditional “stranger danger” training goes completely against the example that parents set for their children. When a parent is asked for directions by a stranger you never hear them say, “Stop! I don’t know you! Don’t come any closer!” If a parent does not do it, there is absolutely no chance that a child will do it either. It is hard enough to get kids to habitually say “please” and “thank you,” let alone assert themselves in a way that they have never seen from their fundamental role model.
The second issue is that stranger danger is just not practical. If a child is in a bad situation and their parents are not around, who is the first person that has the ability to help that child? Most likely a police officer or fire fighter will not be in the immediate area. In the vast majority of cases it will be an unknown individual who will help the child.
In my opinion the most detrimental aspect of stranger danger training is that it instills a sense of mistrust in others. The training that is meant to keep kids safe can quickly turn into a factor that stifles their social growth and development. The chance that a child will get abducted by an adult predator is incredibly small. However, the chance that they will benefit from learning to trust others is almost certain.