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Child abductions are scary to think about. It keeps many of us parents up at night wondering if our kid will ever be the target of a kidnapper. Then we wonder if we’ve taught our children well enough to repel such a person.
Ironically, a stranger who tries to abduct a child most likely won’t look like the picture above. But this is what we envision when we think of an evil person who would steal a child. He or she won’t look scary. They’ll look normal. Most predators need to get close to children and earn their cooperation, so they’ll look as nice as possible. That’s why you have to watch adult behavior when they interact with your child.
Statistics show that child abductions by a nonfamily member are rare. In fact, in 2016 of more than 20,500 missing children, only 1% were taken by a nonfamily member. The overwhelming majority of those cases were children who ran away because they felt endangered at home.
Is Stranger Danger relevant then? I wish that were the case. However, in my community there are multiple reports of an older woman in a red car trying to coax children to get in with her. No one has discovered who she is and so far her attempts appear to be ineffective. While these types of abductions are statistically rare, it’s still important to teach your children how to respond to a stranger’s unwanted attention.
Here are some Stranger Danger tips to help make your family more secure.
Talk to Strangers
Many of us have been taught to never talk to strangers. That seems like good advice. While it may sound odd, children need to learn social interaction by talking to people they don't know - strangers. As they do, they will build an internal database for human behavior.
This database will grow and your kids will be able to tell the difference between someone with good and bad intentions. This is an important distinction they must learn. If we tell them never to talk to a stranger then how will they know if they are in danger?
In his book, Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) author Gavin de Becker encourages healthy conversation with strangers. He puts it simply, “The irony is that if your child is ever lost in public, the ability to talk to strangers is actually the single greatest asset he could have.”
He later explains that what we as parents fear is a stranger convincing our child to leave with him. Let’s teach our kids how to converse with someone they don’t know, but never to leave with them. So the next time you are at the bank or in line at the grocery store, have your child talk with the person behind the counter to start to build that communication foundation.
Bad People Act Nice
Children deal in absolutes at times. In their stories and TV shows, the good guys are always right and the bad guys are always bad. So it can be hard for a child to consider someone a threat if they are being nonthreatening. Again, these predators won’t look scary. They will look like you and me.
Teach your children to be wary of these common things a stranger might say to trick them:
“Can you help me find my dog?”
“Do you like chocolate? I’ve got a candy bar in my car just for you.”
“Your mommy has been hurt in an accident. She sent me to bring you to her at the hospital.”
All of these statements seem nonthreatening to a child. In fact, a child might feel instant sympathy for someone who has lost their dog. They might be overcome with panic to hear their mother has been hurt in an accident. That’s why they need to be told that these words can be lies if they come from a stranger. And to be cautious of a person they meet when they are without a parent.
Make a Codeword
The schemes for abducting a child can be elaborate. A stranger may pretend to be teacher at your child's school. They may also offer to play a game with them allowing more time to build false trust. This is why it’s important to have a family codeword so that your child isn’t tricked into leaving with a bad guy.
A codeword is like a key. When it is used properly a family member or close friend can establish trust with your child if necessary. The codeword will signal to a child that their parents have indeed sent this person because they know the secret codeword. Without the codeword, children should be taught to call for help if someone is trying to take them.
Many daycares and schools require a codeword upon enrollment. They want to ensure that the person that comes to pick up your child was indeed sent by you. Make this a priority for your family and test them on the word periodically. I still remember my codeword with my parents to this day.
It’s Okay to Disobey a Grown Up
We want our kids to respect authority. We spend a lot of time getting them to listen to us, their teachers and coaches. Kids live in a world where adults know more and frequently tell them what to do. But they need to be taught it’s okay to disobey a stranger.
The difference is that teachers and coaches have established a relationship with your child. First responders have uniforms and equipment that show their authority. Strangers don’t have that experience. Strangers will use their words with little proof they are who they say they are.
Without proof of authority or a codeword your children should know it’s okay to disobey this grown up and call for help. Teach them the power of the word, “no”.
Don’t Leave Children Alone
We’ve all heard stories from our parents about when they were young they left the house after school and didn’t come back until sunset. Was the world a better place back then? Perhaps, but children went missing in the 1950s and 1960s. We just didn’t have social media and the 24 hours news cycle to spread the word like we do today.
As much as I want my child to be independent and self-sufficient, we still need to be with them when they are in public. We should always know where our child is at all times. Even when going to the bathroom. Never send a child into a public bathroom alone. A young child doesn't have the reasoning or defensive skills to fend off a predator in a secluded, enclosed room.
As parents we should also be ready to protect and defend our child in case they are threatened. We need to learn how to keep our families safe in public by spotting trouble before it starts. This is called situational awareness. Learning these skills can keep your family out of danger.
Yes it is statistically rare that a unknown, nonfamily member would abduct a child. However don’t live your life by the numbers. Statistics don’t mean a thing when it’s your child that is harmed. Educate your family today to prevent another statistic tomorrow. If you’d like more information about family safety, please consider The Secure Dad Newsletter.
For further reading please consider:
What to Teach Kids about Strangers - National Crime Prevention Council
KidsSmartz.org - Kid centered learning about strangers
Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) by Gavin de Becker