Child abduction is a parent’s worst nightmare — one which sadly plays out before our eyes in news media almost monthly. But those devastating headlines can actually save your child by serving as a catalyst for important conversations about stranger danger.

As soon as your child is old enough to be out of your sight, around 3 or 4 years old, he is old enough to discuss strangers. A good way to open the discussion is by reading together a book about strangers. The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers by Stan and Jan Berenstain and Never Talk to Strangers by Irma Joyce and S. D. Schindler are good starters.

In teaching stranger danger, you’ll want to instill a healthy fear without stifling your child’s social development. A good way to accomplish that balance is to begin by explaining that most people are kind and caring. You can even name some people outside of immediate family members whom you trust and want your child to trust.

From there, you can explain that some others, however, are sad or angry people who want to hurt others. Explain that they look just like the people he sees every day, and that’s why you have rules for interacting with strangers. The rules should be instructional and offer guidance for a variety of situations, such as this list from Illinois Early Learning:

“It’s OK to talk to someone if I’m with you or when I tell you it’s all right.”
“Grown-ups who need help should ask other grown-ups, not children, for help. This includes carrying a package or finding a place or a lost puppy.”
“Stay near me or the grown-up with you in public places, such as stores or parks.”
“If you’re not close to us, stay an arm’s length or more from someone you don’t know. Back up or run for help if an unfamiliar grown-up gets too close. Scream and kick if a stranger grabs you.”
“If you get lost, find a police officer, security person or store clerk. If separated from me or the grown-up you’re with in a public place, such as at a store or shopping mall, stay in that spot until someone finds you.”
“Don’t go anywhere with someone you don’t know.”
“Never take anything from a stranger.”
“Listen to your feelings. If you’re scared, get away and look for someone to help you.”
Once you’ve outlined these rules, the best thing you can do for your child is to practice it. Role-play with your child and play out various, potentially dangerous scenarios. This will help your child adapt the rule to different situations and reinforce the learning. Then if she ever needs to fall back on any of the rules, she’ll be able to do so with confidence.

It’s also a good idea to make sure your child knows her whole name, the names of her parents, her phone number (including area code) and her address (including city and state). Also, teach her how to use 911, making sure she understands she can call 911 from pay phones, even if she doesn’t have any money. Explain that being lost, separated or in an unsafe situation are all legitimate uses of 911.

As your child grows, you’ll want to adapt your communication to his growing understanding and abilities. For example, instead of staying in the same place if separated from the grown-up, you can have an established meeting place. And have a plan for how your child gets home from every activity. Teach your child not to change that plan without checking with you — and that includes returning from school or weekend activities and instances when someone a child knows comes unexpectedly to pick him up.

Teaching children stranger danger is like teaching them what to do in case of fire — it’s a skill we hope they’ll never need. But taking care to explain the rules and practice them is the best thing you can do to ensure your child’s safety.

As published in the February 2004 Edition of the La Crosse Tribune.