"Protecting the Gift:
Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)"
"Never Talk to Strangers"
by Gavin de Becker
"Never Talk to Strangers. Somehow we believe that if we teach this to our children, if we’re certain they fully understand it, if they get it right every time we quiz them on it – if all that happens, they’ll be safe. With some urgency, we implore, "You understand, right? Never talk to strangers. Tell Daddy again, okay?" In the world we cannot control, we can control at least one thing: Our children will know The Rule. Really, however, all we can be certain of is that they can recite it.
Children are taught The Rule when young, but the very week it’s handed down, they see their parents violate it over and over. And they are themselves encouraged to violate it: "Say hello to the nice lady," "Answer the man’s question," "Tell Mr. Evans your name." What children actually learn is: Never talk to strangers unless they are wearing a clown suit or a uniform, or they work at the bank, or they’re registering us to vote, or they’re seeking signatures on a petition, or they’re handing out tasty samples, or they’re nice. Never Talk to Strangers, it turns out, isn’t a rule after all, but a highly flexible and incomprehensible concept that only Mom and Dad really understand – if even they do.
The list of violently inclined predatory criminals defeated because a parent told his or her child not to talk to strangers isn’t long enough to be called a list at all. More to the point, young children told not to talk to strangers do talk to strangers anyway. On a powerful segment of the Oprah Winfrey Show, children were successfully lured away from inattentive parents time after time. Ken Wooden, the author of Child Lures, is among the nation’s most effective advocates for children’s safety. He described his appearance on the program: "Oprah’s producers and I approached several young mothers in a suburban park to ask for their cooperation with our experiment. Each mother emphatically insisted that her child would never leave the park with a stranger, then watched in horror from a distance as her youngster cheerfully followed me out of the park to look for my puppy. On average, it took thirty-five seconds to lure each child away from the safety of the park." (This Oprah Winfrey program, aired on September 27, 1993, can be ordered through Burrelle’s Transcripts 800-777-8398. Title: "Child Lures.")
Clearly, the children lured away by this ploy were not ready to be on their own, and they were too far away from their mothers. I’ve observed people leave a small child farther away than they’d ever leave a purse or briefcase. Of course, a purse or briefcase isn’t expected to protect itself, and herein lies this huge fallacy at the center of The Rule. It assumes that a small child has something to contribute to his or her own protection, and that’s just not true.
Reliance upon a child in such high-stakes matters is misplaced. Imagine selecting a five-year-old baby-sitter for your child. Many parents have done virtually that by placing part of the responsibility for a child’s personal security on the child. I heard one parent say about The Rule, "We’ve told her a hundred times, but she just doesn’t get it." Then think of that as your starting point: She doesn’t get it. Maybe because she’s too young, or maybe because she just doesn’t get it, but listen to that fact. When we assume that a young child will reliably do what we say in our absence, or that doing it will keep him or her safe, we are choosing to share our duty with the least qualified person available. We’d actually find a more reliable guard for our children by choosing a total stranger.
Even if I believed in the effectiveness of The Rule it would be hard to endorse the ways it is often taught. Here’s a passage from a children’s book entitled "Never Talk to Strangers:" "If you are hanging from a trapeze and up sneaks a camel with bony knees, remember this rule, if you please – Never Talk to Strangers." The book goes on to discuss grouchy grizzly bears, parachuting hawks, a rhinoceros waiting for a bus, wolves asking the time, cars with whales at the wheel, etc. With all due credit to the author, whose heart was surely in the right place, how effective can this be? Some people might judge effectiveness by a child’s ability to recite the catchy rhymes, but that’s a test of memory, not a test of the ability to protect oneself. Even if a child fully learns and embraces the rule of not talking to strangers, many kids believe a stranger is an unshaven man in tattered clothes; neither the nice neighbor nor the guy at the check-out counter is one of those.
In addition to the fact that it doesn’t work, The Rule actually reduces safety in several ways. One is that within the message Never Talk to Strangers (because they may harm you) is the implication that people you know will not harm you. If stranger equals danger, then friend equals safety. But the opposite is true far more often. First of all we are inherently more protected against a stranger; he must get around the defense systems of the parent and the child. The friend, conversely, is ushered inside the gates and given a pass. The friend has been gifted with what every predator must work to gain: trust and access. So, the issue isn’t strangers versus acquaintances; it is people who might harm your child versus people who won’t, people who deserve your trust versus people who don’t.
Until a child is old enough to understand what predatory strategies look like, old enough and confident enough to resist them, assertive enough to seek help, powerful enough to enforce the word No – until all that happens, a child is too young to be his own protector, too young to merit any of your reliance, too young to be part of the defense system, period.
Presumably, The Rule is intended to provide protection in the event the child is alone somewhere, because if a parent is present, then what difference does it make if a young child speaks with a stranger? The irony is that if your child is ever lost in public, the ability to talk to strangers is actually the single greatest asset he could have. To seek assistance, to describe one’s situation, to give a phone number, to ask advice, to say No – all these interactions require the child to speak with strangers. If kids view talking to strangers as the threshold they mustn’t cross, then when they do cross it (and they will), they have no further tools. Talking is just talking, after all, but since what we really want to avoid is our child going somewhere with someone, that’s the thing to teach them about.
Another way The Rule reduces safety is by providing unearned peace of mind; because of it, some parents don’t take other precautions. But there’s still another, more pervasive way The Rule reduces safety: Children raised to assume all strangers might be dangerous do not develop their own inherent skills of evaluating behavior. The Rule hurts all of us by producing generation after generation of people who fear people, mostly because they don’t understand them. Fear of people is really the fear that we can’t predict their behavior.
Recognize that for every person you encounter who might hurt your child, there are literally millions who will not. Does it make sense to treat everyone as if they are in the dangerous group? That’s exactly what modern Western society has done. Ironically, adults end up being more loyal to The Rule than children: We, unlike people in many cultures, pass each other on streets and in hallways without acknowledgment.
Yet communicating with strangers is part of the test human beings are built to use to confirm that strangers are of good will. Just like animals, we have a complex system for evaluating the intent of those we encounter. In less fractured cultures, strangers exchange signals as they pass each other, signals that usually communicate, I mean you no harm. It might be a nod, a slight smile, a wave, or a greeting that puts both people at ease, but millions of Americans don’t participate. That’s why being in the presence of a stranger can be uncomfortable or even frightening. You see, since we more than most species need to be reassured about the intent of others, that discomfort you feel in the elevator with a stranger is natural. Your body is waiting to be put at ease when the stranger passes a test. The tension is instantly broken when your nod solicits a smile, or when a comment initiates a cordial exchange of words.
Though this book focuses on violence, let’s recognize that human beings are perhaps the most cooperative species on earth. Most animals live within a herd, flock, or hive, resisting contact with outsiders in their own species. In contrast, we spend much of our time in the presence of strangers, far from our home tribe. This works only because we can readily determine who is safe for us to be around and who is not. Human beings predict dangerousness (and far more often predict safety) automatically and with astounding accuracy – but not if we avoid the very things that inform our intuition. It is an individual’s behavior, not merely his species, which might warn us of danger, and communicating is how we find our comfort and our safety.
Bottom line: The issue isn’t strangers, it is strangeness. It is inappropriate behavior that’s relevant: a stare held too long, a smile that curls too slowly, a narrowing or widening of the eyes, a rapid looking away. The muscles in the face are instruments of communication, resulting in an eloquent language that can put us at ease or give us the creeps."
About the Author: Gavin De Becker, best-selling author of "The Gift of Fear," is America’s leading expert on predicting violent behavior. A three-time presidential appointee, he’s advisor to such clients as the C.I.A. and the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s also the co-chair of the Domestic Violence Council Advisory Board, and co-founder of Victory Over Violence, an organization that assists battered women and their children.