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Changing the Message About Strangers

Family Safety Expert Advice from Gavin de Becker

Q: After years of telling my five-year-old daughter ''never talk to strangers," how do I begin to say ''now it's okay to talk to strangers''?

A: Well, it can't be too many years, given her age, but let's imagine that she's had a fairly clear concept of strangers for a year or two. Just like you, her perception of what ''stranger'' means changes as she grows up and as she learns more. Many young children describe a stranger as ''a man with black clothes, dark hair, a beard, a gun,'' etc.

The goal is to move to change your daughter's focus off strangers and on to behavior. For every stranger who would harm your daughter, there are millions who will not, so strangers are not the issue. I suggest that you pursue opportunities for your daughter to communicate with strangers in appropriate environments. Children thus learn what feels comfortable and what does not. Such learning can be aided by a parent who watches a child communicate in a restaurant or store and then discusses the encounter afterward. ''What did you think when that guy stood so close? I thought he seemed strange; I wasn't comfortable with him.'' Or, ''I felt safe with that man at the next table who talked to us; did you?''

One mother I know regularly encourages her seven-year-old son to approach strangers, giving him small challenges such as, ''Can you find out what time it is?'' or ''Can you get directions to the nearest frozen yogurt place?'' Then she stands back a bit and observes as he selects a person to ask. Afterward, they discuss why he chose who he chose, how the exchange went, if he felt comfortable with the person he spoke with, if that person was comfortable with his approach, and so on. Her son has safely rehearsed all kinds of encounters with people.

Could it be that this boy who actually approaches strangers in public is less likely to be a victim than someone taught never to talk to them? Absolutely yes. Let me know how things go with your daughter.

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Gavin de Becker is widely regarded as the leading U.S. expert on the prediction and management of violence. His work has earned him three Presidential appointments and a position on a congressional committee. He is currently co-chair of the Domestic Violence Council Advisory Board, and a Senior Fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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