Growing up, you may have heard your parents’ countless warnings against talking to strangers, accepting sweets or walking off with them. An increasing number of reported cases of child kidnap for trafficking and of pedophiles preying on victims set the scene for paranoia, now that we’re parents ourselves. As we keep being reminded, Singapore has low crime not no crime. So while these cases are rare, we need to stay vigilant.
Are you very certain that your kid knows ‘stranger danger’? Think again. This experiment could prove you — and the mothers of the children in the investigation — wrong.
ITV’s Daybreak investigation reveals many children are happy to walk off with strangers
A man poses as a ‘predator’ in this experiment to try to lure the kids (aged between 5 to 9) away from the playground while their mother pretends to be distracted by a call.
He asks for help to look for his white puppy “Maxie” — showing a picture of a cute dog on his phone — or another kid. “You can help to throw his ball to look for him,” he offers with an earnest smile.
The mothers of the children were all dead sure that their kid would never walk away with a stranger. After all, they had all been trained and reminded not to do so.
7 in 9 children were all too willing to follow the man in search of ‘Maxie’. The shortest time he took to convince a child to follow him was 33 seconds. Let me repeat that so that you remember. 33 seconds. Just over half a minute to persuade your child to walk off with a stranger.
The boisterous children were excited by the opportunity to look for a puppy, possibly even pet it. They left the playground despite being cautioned by their parents about stranger danger, all too delighted at the prospect of finding the puppy. The longest time the ‘predator’ took to convince a kid to follow him was a mere three minutes.
The friendly disposition of the man coupled with his ability to play into kids’ psychology made them willing victims of his ruse. Parents were horror-struck and flabbergasted that their child could be so easily duped despite countless warnings about stranger danger.
What was one child’s reasoning? “But he isn’t a stranger, Mummy. He has a dog.”
Reshaping your child’s perception of a ‘stranger’
This experiment teaches us a very important lesson, that kids have different ideas of what a ‘stranger’ is and it is not merely ‘someone you do not know’. Parents need to educate children that not all strangers sport the storybook crook look — scary-looking with scars, a hunch or a sneer. They need to learn that not all pedophiles come in white vans, not all kidnappers will grab them kicking and screaming, not all molesters lure their victims with a lollipop.
Tips when educating your kid not to walk off with strangers:
1. Don’t simply use negative adjectives associated with ‘stranger’
Many people say “the bad man is coming to catch you” (or a racially-offensive equivalent) or more locally, “the garang guni will kidnap you”. These threats give children a preconceived notion of who they should think of as strangers, also implying that a good-looking, well-dressed person could never be a stranger and thus pose no harm.
2. Make them recognise that a ‘stranger’ can be of different demographics
Strangers aren’t just middle-aged men: a stranger can be a a young boy, an elderly man who looks like he could be their grandfather, a motherly-looking woman.
In a further experiment by Daybreak, kids were shown pictures of some people and asked which of them were strangers. Almost all of them completely discredited the picture of a young guy as ‘stranger’. One little boy’s justification was, “He’s a teenager. He’s not a stranger.”
3. Not all strangers offer incentives
“Nothing is free in this world,” is something you would very likely use to convince your child not to accept anything (candy, chocolate, toy etc.) from a stranger. However, not all strangers offer a reward to their victims.
Just like in the Daybreak experiment, the man pretended to be in need of help. Some children did not even know that they were in the wrong for following the ‘stranger’, and were very extremely happy that they could ‘do a good deed’ by helping.
Watch the stranger danger experiment by ITV’s Daybreak here:
Perhaps we should pride ourselves in that our kids have been taught to be helpful towards those in need, but the fact remains that most are too naive to distinguish between a hoax and a real cry for help.
As young children, how could they be expected to know the difference? Do we, as parents, have to instill in them such a mistrust of the world in order to keep them safe? Would this blanket suspicion of any and every single kind-looking stranger eventually result in an unhealthy paranoia of people in general? How do we keep our precious children safe? Parenting has always posed dilemmas but none perhaps as scary as this experiment has demonstrated.