Have you taught your child how to talk to strangers?
Ignoring strangers or staying silent may not be the best way to teach our kids about "stranger danger". Find out more in this article...
My three-year-old son is at that beautifully trusting age where he loves everyone. He even shouts out a merry “hello” to our not-so-merry neighbour every time he sees him. I love that my little boy is so friendly because I think the ability to smile and talk to anyone is a great quality to have.
I loved that he is so friendly and trusting... until I saw this video.
This video (a.k.a. a mum's worst nightmare) posted by YouTube prankster Joey Saladino has had millions of views and left an equal number of terrified parents in its wake, including myself.
However, Saladino has been criticized for unnecessarily scaring parents around the world – he has not cited his sources for one, and has, according to the BBC, neglected to fact check his numbers.
The other important point he fails to mention is that when it comes to child abduction and sexual abuse, the danger is more from people the child knows – horrifically often family members/friend/relatives – than strangers. In the US, for example, only a tiny fraction of child abduction cases involve complete strangers, according to a Time news report.
Saladino’s video is, nevertheless, a good eye opener to the dangers that lurk in society and the very real threats to the safety of our children.
After watching it (and getting over my initial panic), it made me think that instead of teaching our kids not to talk to strangers, we should be teaching them HOW TO TALK correctly to strangers. Because not all strangers are nasty and waiting to kidnap your kids. In fact, it could be a stranger who saves your kid’s life.
Good stranger, bad stranger
Our children encounter strangers every day... in the supermarket, at the park, while walking down the street. Most of these strangers are just regular, nice people – perhaps parents themselves, like you and me.
What is important is how we teach our kids about strangers and identifying suspicious behaviour.
Identifying a stranger
Our kids may be too quick to think that “bad strangers” look evil, just like the villains in cartoons. They should know that this is not true and it is quite dangerous for kids to think this way. Teach your child that how a person looks has nothing to do with his or her intentions.
A pretty face doesn’t equate to “kind.” A dangerous person can look like the person next door; he can even be someone your child knows.
Also, your child should know how to identify “safe strangers” should he find himself in a sticky situation. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, USA (NCPC), “Safe strangers are people children can ask for help when they need it.”
Examples of safe strangers: Police officers, firefighters, and teachers. Give children examples like these that they can easily identify, too.
- When you are out and about with your child, help them recognise “safe strangers” by pointing them out, e.g., policemen.
- Show your kids places they can go to if they need help, such as trusted local stores or the homes of family friends in the neighbourhood.
- When in a shopping mall, point out the information counter usually located in the lobby or first floor and instruct your child to always go there should he get separated from you.
- Always know where your child is and make your child memorise your phone number should he need to contact you.
Identifying and handling a dangerous situation
One of the most important ways you can protect your child is by teaching him how to deal with potentially dangerous situations, involving both strangers and known people who have bad intentions.
Contrary to popular advise of telling our kids not to speak to strangers, experts say that kids must be taught how to speak up to strangers when needed. Kids must acquire the ability to discriminate between people that they can and cannot trust, even at a young age.
A study led by Harvard University psychological scientist Emily Cogsdill proves this. Cogsdill's research shows that "the predisposition to judge others based on physical features starts early in childhood and does not require years of social experience."
Research psychologist Dr. Peggy Drexler therefore suggests that one of the best ways for parents to coach their kids how to stay safe is to "teach them how to use their own instincts in determining who feels safe and who doesn't, and encouraging them to have faith in their own abilities."
Simply put, don't advise your child to distrust others, but teach them to trust in their own instincts.
Teach your child to speak up in dangerous situations. Find out how on the next page.
No, Go, Yell, Tell
If a stranger asks your child to go away with them or to disobey you, or if he tries to touch your child inappropriately or if he makes your child feel uncomfortable in any way, teach your child the “No, go, yell, tell” method.
Your child should say NO, go and run away, yell as loud as he can, and tell a trusted adult about what happened.
Here are some potentially dangerous scenarios:
- Your child thinks he is being followed.
- A stranger asks him to get into a car or go somewhere with him.
- A stranger approaches your child in the park and asks him to help look for something lost.
- A person in your neighbourhood who your child has never spoken to, invites your child into his/her house for a snack or to show him something.
- A known adult touches your child inappropriately or makes him feel bad or uncomfortable in any way. Remember: experts say that in most cases, abusers are well known to their victims.
The dangers of the virtual world
Our children live in a digital age and, with this, comes dangers that parents can’t necessarily foresee, but are very real and very scary.
In January 2015, according to a Straits Times report, “31-year-old Yap Weng Wah admitted to preying on 31 victims aged between 11 and 15.” He had sexually groomed the boys after “friending” them on Facebook and either sodomised or had oral sex with 30 of the boys at various locations in Singapore.
The crimes were brought to light after one victim complained to the police in June 2012. At a raid of Yap’s Yishun flat, more than 2,000 sex videos were uncovered, including personal ones of him and young boys.
According to reports, “the case, described by the prosecution as the worst of its kind, has put the spotlight on sexual grooming and how children - fearing shame, stigma, or being reprimanded - can keep silent about abuse.”
What is sexual/online grooming?
Sexual grooming, according to Parents Protect!, is when people who want to sexually harm children get close to them in order to gain their trust. Grooming can take place anywhere - even in the home or at school.
Online grooming is when these relationships are forged online. An online sexual predator will make friends with a child - often via social medical platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat etc - and try to find out as much information as possible about the child.
An online predator will often lie about his or her age, and even gender. They share false pictures of themselves. And when they think they have gained the child’s trust (often through flattery and promises of gifts), they will do their best to isolate the child.
The danger of online grooming is that the abuser may not be “restricted by time or accessibility to a child as they would be in the ‘real world.’”
You are probably shuddering in horror right now. I was when I was writing this. But there are steps you can take to help protect your child against sexual grooming and online predators. Find out what they are on the next page.
Protecting kids online: Must-know safety tips
Mr Chong Ee Jay, assistant manager at Touch Cyber Wellness, which provides Internet safety training in schools, says it is so important that both educators and parents stay up-to-date on the increasing number of social media platforms used by children.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Follow age limits on social networking websites. Most social networking sites require that users be age 13 and over.
- Young children should not use chat rooms. If you have older kids, direct them towards well-monitored kids’ chat rooms.
- Make sure you know which chat rooms your child visits and with whom they talk.
- Instruct your children to never leave the chat room’s public area. Many chat rooms offer private areas where users can have one-on-one chats with other users. These are often called “whisper” areas.
- Keep the Internet-connected computer in a common area of the house, never in a child’s bedroom. It is much more difficult for a predator to reach your child if the computer screen is easily visible.
- Maintain a close relationship with your child from a young age, creating a trust-based environment where your child will not feel hesitant to confide in you if something is not right.
- Singapore Children's Society executive director Alfred Tan says to watch out for kids being very active online late at night, or receiving gifts they cannot afford.
- Finally, watch out for and reach out to your kid if you think he is having a tough time at school making friends. Such kids may turn to the Internet to fill the void.
You could also teach your children the five key Childnet SMART Rules which guide young people to be SMART online.
S – SAFE: Keep safe by being careful not to give out personal information, such as your name, email, phone number, home address, or school name, to people who you don’t know online.
M – MEETING: Meeting someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous. Only do so with your parents’/carers’ permissions and when they can be present.
A – ACCEPTING: Accept emails, IM messages, or opening files only from people know or trust. Otherwise, it can be dangerous.
R – RELIABLE: Trust reliable facts only. Someone online may be lying about who they are, and information you find on the internet may not be reliable.
T – TELL: Tell your parent, carer, or a trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried.
Parents, we can't personally protect our kids forever even though we wish with all our hearts that we can. But we can educate and empower our kids with the skills to look after themselves if caught up in a dangerous situation.
I know I will. Will you?
Do share with us your own "stranger danger" tips by leaving a comment below. You can also PRINT OUT the S.M.A.R.T rules by clicking this link, and place it near the computer your child uses.