“Don’t talk to strangers” not always the best policy

August 6, 2005
By DAVID CRARY
The Associated Press

Tips for parents to keep kids safe

NEW YORK – Against a backdrop of highly publicized child abductions, some
experts are urging parents to abandon the time-honored warning of “Don’t
talk to strangers” and instead work creatively with their children on a
variety of skills for being safe but not scared.

“Our message is that children should recognize and avoid certain
situations, rather than certain people,” said Nancy McBride of the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Federal statistics indicate there is no upsurge in child abductions and
disappearances, though such cases often gain widespread attention,
fueling anxiety among parents and others. Florida lawmakers, for
instance, toughened child-sex laws this spring following the separate
abductions and slayings of two girls.

For parents, one of the groups trying to channel the anxiety into
constructive child-safety approaches is the Jacob Wetterling Foundation,
founded by a Minnesota couple whose 11-year-son was abducted in 1989 and
has not been seen since.

The foundation’s executive director, Nancy Sabin, said the
Stranger/Danger mantra “is far overrated” because most abductors and
abusers are known to the parent or child.

“More than 80 percent of the time, the abductor is someone in the
neighborhood,” she said. “The myth is that it’s a guy in a trench coat
unknown to the child, but in fact it’s rarely a total stranger. … Most
people who are going to help a kid are strangers.”

Sabin advised parents to practice “what if” scenarios with their children
to give them experience making decisions that might help them escape
danger. What would the child do if suddenly separated from a parent at a
mall? How to respond if, while playing games in a video arcade, an adult
man approaches?

“Make it nonthreatening,” Sabin said. “You don’t want to make a child
afraid. If any of us are afraid, you can’t think clearly.”
Child safety

Rethinking warnings: Some experts are urging parents, as they try to
ensure their children’s safety, to abandon the time-honored warning of
“Don’t talk to strangers.”

Challenging myths: Leading child-safety groups say abductors and abusers
are far more likely to be people known to the child or parent than to be
total strangers. If trouble arises, strangers may be the best source of
help.

Other strategies: Parents are advised to practice basic safety skills
with their children, using outings to malls or parks for “what if”
exercises so they know how to respond to getting lost or harassed.
The Associated Press

McBride said children should be tutored to identify adults, even if
strangers, who might be able to help them a sales clerk, for example, or
virtually any mother with children of her own. Blanket fear of unfamiliar
adults might actually be harmful, McBride said, citing the recent case of
Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old boy lost in Utah’s Uinta Mountains who
hid from rescue workers because they were strangers.

McBride said children should be taught to extricate themselves as swiftly
as possible from a situation that frightens or discomforts them, even if
that entails brusque behavior.

“That’s going to be tough for some parents,” she said. “You’re giving
your children permission to be impolite if their safety is at stake.”

The extent to which a child should physically resist yelling, biting,
kicking may depend on circumstances, experts say. Sabin said such tactics
could enable a child to escape in late July, a Utah girl struck her
abductor and he ultimately released her or could backfire if attempted in
an isolated area where the abductor had no fear of being noticed.
John Mould, a special-education teacher who has raised six children in
the Philadelphia suburb of Ambler, said he’s impressed upon them that
resistance might be the best option. “Even when they’re younger, it’s
well-documented that being loud and fighting is the thing to do,” Mould
said.

With children ranging from 12 to 21, Mould and his wife have gone through
a steady process of granting each child increasing independence
accompanied by precautions.

“We let them know when we turn things over to them,” he said. “Now that
you can do this by yourself, here are the rules you should follow.”

One recent complication, he said, was the anxiety prompted by the
mass-transit bombings in London, followed by warnings from Mould’s wife
that the children should be alert to terror attacks in public places.

“At this point, the list of things to be scared of gets so long that it
loses credibility,” Mould said. “Either the kids get a sense of paranoia
or they say forget it ‹ there are too many things to worry about.”

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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