Motherhood

How Do You Teach Your Kids to Talk to Strangers?

Right down our block is a gourmet deli, and we’ll often stop by for milk or a little treat. The owner, Wally, is totally adorable and has tons of inside jokes with Toby and Anton—and once even let Toby come behind the counter, which was basically the highlight of his young life.

For the past four years, Toby has chatted up every grocery clerk, old lady sitting on a stoop, guy walking a dog, mail carrier…and don’t get him started with cab drivers! (“What’s your name?” “Are you a daddy?” “What kind of car is this?” “I LOVE NISSANS!”). I love his gregariousness and encourage him to strike up conversations. It makes New York feel like Sesame Street.

Drew Hoolhorst recently wrote a beautiful essay about expecting a child, and I liked this part:

Let’s tell him to hold the door open for every person, ever. To talk to the guy at the grocery store, because it’s fun. Let’s tell him to talk to strangers for the most part, because as long as they’re not in the back of a van strangers get a bad rap. They’re the joy of your life and you should talk to as many of them as possible.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I’m the same way. But as Toby gets older, now and again, I’m wonder, when should talk you talk to kids about stranger danger? And what should you say? The vast, vast majority of people are warmhearted, and I don’t want to make Toby nervous around strangers or quash his friendly spirit.

When we were growing up, my mom read us books like this. She also had the genius idea to come up with a secret phrase: “Fat Tulip” (which was an English TV program). She explained that if she ever had to send a neighbor or friend to pick us up from school in an emergency, she would have them tell us, “Fat Tulip.” We never actually needed to use it, but it was helpful and reassuring to have that password.

I also once read a tip (from a reader in the comments section, I think) to teach children that if they get lost, they should find a mom and ask her to help. That seems like a smart idea since it might be hard for little kids to figure out who is in a uniform and intimidating to approach someone so official and formal. And another friend actually writes her cell phone number on her kids’ arms when they’re in sports stadiums in case they get lost. Brilliant, right?

Do you let your kids talk to strangers? Have you read them any books or given them any instructions? I’ve been curious to ask you guys this for a while now!

Update: Read the comments! They are amazing! Totally worth it! Thanks so much to everyone who weighed in. xoxo

P.S. More do or don’ts, including tomboy perfumes and changing your name when you get married.

(Photo from my my Instagram)

  1. My son is only 2, but I’m trying to teach him my husband and I’s first names. IE, our names other than Mommy and Daddy. He’s currently really confused by that concept, but I’d like him to be able to tell a helper that his mom is “Amy.”

  2. It is a subject I have also been wondering about. My daughter is also very naturally friendly and I don’t want to make her scared either. Nowadays with the internet, the world feels more dangerous but I’m actually not sure it is. I think the problem, instead, is disconnect. The fact that we don’t talk or don’t know our neighbors.
    Like many people, I used to play all over my neighborhood as a child and it was the most fun time of my life. Now I do a double-take if I see a kid walking by himself!

    You may be interested in reading this article:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2015/03/03/would-you-call-911-on-another-parent/?tid=sm_fb

  3. Yes,get them talking, practice manners and random acts of kindness till it is ingrained. But also tell them young that not all strangers will be nice. I once took my kids to an amusement park with t shirts that read “if lost or misbehaving call 301-514-XXXX” now the younger ones have dog-tags. I teach them it is safer to approach than to be approached.

  4. I went to a parenting lecture once, and the brilliant woman who was leading the lecture said to teach your kids not to be afraid of strangers, but rather to be wary of strange people. It makes so much sense! She also said that you can encourage a child to follow their intuition by trusting them and their views on people. For instance, if you and your son were in line at the grocery store, and he said “That man’s scary and weird” about someone standing next to you, you might have the embarrassed urge to say something like “He’s not weird and scary! He’s a nice man!” But by doing that, you are shutting your child’s intuition down. Instead, you should just say “If he makes you feel uncomfortable, you can stand over here closer to me.” Brilliant!

  5. Such an imp topic. Funny thing, I have this memory of growing up in NYC (23rd st!) & part of everyday life was have great, weird, strong relationships with various shopkeepers along my daily route. Each kid would have one or two of their own. The perfume & fancy scent shop that I would pass just prior to my bus stop was one of mine. I just happened in one day bc the store owner was in & she had two amazing dalmations. Of course I was in there in a second. Rather than be wary of small kids only in yr store to pet yr dogs, the shop keeper was very friendly & it became a daily stop. My friend who grew up in Tudor City had a stationary store that she would go to daily & get exactly two individual pieces of bubble gum – gratis of course. It may seem weird but these were real relationships bet adults & children that added a lot to both parties. My mom even ended up purchasing Joy perfume frm the store owner! Unfortunately in NYC there aren’t that many little stores left, but love that Toby has already begun staking out his hood, hopefully this NYC tradition continues.

  6. To be honest – in a lot of cases when bad things happen to children it’s not a stranger. In fact when is it EVER a “STRANGER” , usually it’s a teacher, a family friend, a church person, the neighborhood person you know, etc. ec.

  7. Haahahah- our “secret password” was BMX Egg.

  8. Recently read this article explaining in an enlightening way how parents went from practically locking their kids outside to play to practically locking them IN for “safety”, all while crime statistically dangerous to kids has either remained the same or dropped.

    Also love the idea of Kidpower.org another commenter mentioned. I was lucky to have really strong “spidey sense” as a child, but I learned that from my parents by default. They were extremely congenial but also really aware of where a stranger was coming from energetically. For kids with less interaction among different types and classes of adults, a class like Kidpower would be great. Maybe for the whole family!

  9. I absolutely love th Fat Tulip idea!! Adding that tip to my Mama arsenal!

    My daughter is not into chatting up adults, but kids and dogs are her people! Haha! People constantly talk to her and we do tell her to say hi sometimes she does and most times she could care less. I don’t mind her chatting up strangers if it comes naturally but I want to refrain from forcing her to be more sociable especially since I understand that she may be more introverted. I love when kids chat me up so hopefully my daughter will chat up some friendly strangers!

  10. SUCH a smart idea to teach kids to follow their guts/trust their uh-oh feelings. thank you so much for that advice.

    my mom once told me a story about a woman who was walking up a stairwell to her apt and felt very weird but couldn’t figure out why. but she trusted her strong gut feeling and went back down the stairs and left. later, she found out that a window upstairs had been opened and a guy had crawled into the stairwell and attacked someone else. and it turns out that she felt “weird” because the temperature was different and the air was fresher and she could hear a bit of the wind/outdoors, so even though she didn’t know it on the surface or intellectually, she FELT an odd difference and trusted her gut. so fascinating, right?

  11. Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Love her!

  12. When I was teaching Pre-K our school counselor came in to teach “stranger danger.” Something she emphasized to the children was following their “uh-oh” feeling. That intuition that we take for granted, is so so important and children need to be taught to follow it too. Our counselor explained to the children that when they get this feeling in their tummies they should quickly find an adult they trust.

  13. Just another vote for Gavin de Becker. His book is straight talk (he recommends the Kidpower classes, too!) and his website also has helpful tips for selecting babysitters and nannies, talking to your kid’s school, and more. He recommends letting your kid practice talking to strangers as much as possible, because it helps them develop the social sense that will be most useful to them in the event that they are on their own.

    I think we should remove the word “stranger.” What you need to talk about with kids isn’t what kinds of people to avoid, but what kind of behavior to avoid, and what to do when someone says or does something that makes them uneasy. Kids are already very good at developing a sense of this– resisting when someone is trying to trick them or persuade them– and it’s important to tell them to trust that inner sense.

  14. We just talked about this is my mamas circle this week! We read parts of this book and it’s anazing:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0440509009/ref=mp_s_a_1_sc_1?qid=1424813401&sr=8-1-spell&pi=AC_SX110_SY165_QL70&keywords=protectinh+the+guft

    I learned so much from our discussion and am getting this book asap! The author is a security expert and gives lots of practical ideas to practice with your kids. A few tips: if your kid needs help, have them always find a woman, especially with kids. Statistics are in your favor (highly).

  15. I love this post. My little girl smiles at and then attempts to blab at everyone she meets. I hope she stays sociable and if she does, yes talking to strangers is ok. There will also be a stranger danger talk in the future. Street smart can exist alongside general kindness even for kids!

  16. I grew up in Hawaii where people are very friendly. Being out East has been quite an adjustment and, frankly, demoralizing, to smile innocently at a child under 5 who is grinning or babbling at me who then has his/her parent glare with hate in their eyes. They obviously think the worst of me, yet my only crime is standing behind them in the grocery aisle. I’ve learned to keep at least 5 feet away from the child and look as though I don’t care. I find that so offputting though and I miss the community feeling that saying Hello creates, even if you’ll never see the family again.
    Is it so bad if I reply “hi” back to your toddler?

  17. Such a great topic, Joanna. Like your mom, we have a code word we’ve taught the kids, just in case of an emergency. And I made them memorize my cell phone number. It came in handy a few weeks ago, when my son got stranded at a friend’s house and needed to reach me. Phew.

    By the way, wrote a post today about a mother’s “power” (influence) over her children. Happy reading!

    http://jenniferchosalaff.blogspot.com/2015/02/power.html

  18. I like the idea of talking to strangers when you’re with mommy or daddy. I loved reading about your secret code- we had a code word in our house and a secret phrase for if you were in trouble. It lasted into our teen years in case we needed a ride home from a party!

  19. We had a family password too! In fact, now it’s our alarm “safe word.”

  20. This is fascinating! I have a one year old, who is at first quite shy, so I really haven’t started thinking about this yet. Gobbling up all the comments and your insights though.
    It does remind me of being little and learning A LOT about stranger danger– more in school. But was anyone else totally weirded out by visiting “Santa”? I always refused to sit on his lap– an old guy I don’t know, wearing weird clothes, who wants to give me candy and have me sit on his lap?! NO thank you. Which makes perfect sense…
    ~Gaia

  21. I come from the south, so no one is a stranger– everyone talks to everyone, and my mom knows as many details about the life of her bag boy at publix as she does her coworkers and friends. But as an introvert, that kind of talking to strangers really stressed me out as a kid! One thing my mom did, though, that I will definitely do, is introduce me to the characters in my neighborhood. We became friends with (in addition to the bag boy), our mail man, the local fire fighters, even our exterminator. It made the world feel small and safe!

  22. My 4-year old son loves Nissans too, especially Altimas for some reason. Anyway, my kids’ school teaches a body safety program instead of stranger danger. The idea is we all talk to strangers all the time, so how can you stop your child from doing so? Instead, the body safety program focuses on teaching the child what is OK and not OK with anyone – such as not touching other people’s private parts. I believe it’s Sandy Wurtele’s program.

  23. True story … 3 year old talking to a man she knows while his mother checks out at register. Finished, she greets them. The man tells her…”You need to explain what a stranger is. He asked if I’m a stranger because if I am, then he can’t talk to me.”

    Teaching kids…don’t under estimate, and details count.

  24. I let my children talk to strangers, yes. I am clear that they should never go with a stranger or even go with someone unless they know they are supposed to. Both of my girls are in school and I talk to them daily about the schedule for pick up. If there is an unknown change, I have told them in advance to check with their teachers. A big push I have for my girls is if something does not feel right, it probably isn’t. I want them to trust their instincts.

    I wrote a piece on strangers a couple years ago and do teach my girls the three R’s: recognize, resist, and report.

    http://rudeysroom.com/2013/05/16/americas-worst-mom/

  25. This article has really guided me as we’ve dealt with this + kids in the city.
    http://www.checklistmommy.com/2012/02/09/tricky-people-are-the-new-strangers/

    Statistically, it’s not going to be strangers who mess with our kids, right? So, I’ve told my kids consistently that if anyone (teacher, parent, leader, even friend their age) makes them feel nervous or yucky, to get away, RUN away from that person and let me or their dad know. I reassure them that it’s not rude to watch out for yourself, and they will not be punished for doing so.

    And then . . . they talk to all the strangers they want to. My kids are extroverts to the extreme, so it makes me (introvert!) anxious sometimes when they talk to strangers, but I’m trying not to curb their enthusiasm; there are so many great people in this town to get to know! xox

  26. I don’t put any pressure on my daughter to talk or not talk to strangers. I just model polite, friendly behavior that she will hopefully pick up on. Sometimes, though, a stranger will get overly chatty and my mommy instinct gets protective. In those cases I let her know that and that it’s ok to not talk if your gut is telling you something feels wrong.

  27. Di says...

    I am a huge fan of letting our little one talk to strangers.

    For years I’ve loved the book, “the Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker– I recommend it to everyone. One of the points he makes is that we’re all a lot safer when we dispense with generalized anxiety (all strangers are scary) so that we can pay better attention to our intuition and observations.

    That, plus the sad fact is that people families know and trust are, statistically, the ones who are more likely to be dangerous. “Stranger danger” sometimes makes us feel safer, because it feels distant and preventable, but strangers are truly almost never a threat.

  28. What a sweetie Toby is. We also had a password growing up (liberty:) and I always felt reassured as well even though we never had to use it. I definitely still like that idea, but I also think seeking out a mom for help or writing a number on them are good tips too. I think that’s the best you can do so he knows the difference between chatting up a nice stranger and getting in the car with one.

  29. When my daughter was little, we signed her up for Safety Town. They learn all kinds of things, and one thing the Safety Town people talk about a lot is stranger danger. As part of Safety Town, a “stranger” comes and tries to talk children into leaving the park with them. One day I picked my child up and was told that she had gone with the stranger, it caused quite a stir. I was lectured about how negligent I had been in telling my child about strangers. When I asked my daughter about it later, it tuned out that the woman they had posing as a stranger was the same woman that led story hour at the library in my child’s age group. I had been encouraging her to go with this “stranger” to story hour by herself for weeks!

  30. I think its important to teach kids to be prepared if strangers or familiar adults try to lure them. A 9 year-old boy was stabbed 3 times walking alone to school in Staten Island recently. We live in NYC. When my boys were 3 1/2 and 6months we were getting on the subway and the door closed before my 3 year-old got on(one side of the subway doors was broken). He was with my friend and then the doors opened and they both got on. But that moment of seeing my child on the other side of the subway doors scared the crap out of me! I got them ID bracelets and they still wear them at 4 and 7. I also teach them about good/bad touch, sneaky adults, and to scream, hit and bite if a stranger ever tries to take them.

  31. Unfortunately, it is the opposite in Sweden. People of all ages are suspicious of strangers, do generally not talk to people they do not know and even avoid eye contact. Children therefore do not talk to strangers either. When you smile at a small child, or baby, in most cultures the child smiles back but not in Sweden. Here they usually look away or even look scared.

  32. I worked for a Child Safety organisation which was performance-based and often had requests for ‘a show about stranger danger’. We didn’t have this show because sadly, the stats make it clear that most abuse happens by people children already know (and trust). So instead the focus was always on teaching kids skills to identify the ‘bad feelings’ they might get in a threatening situation…so then they can get help.

  33. Jo, I think you may not realize that Toby is social because you are. Kids imitate their parent’s behaviours. If you show him that everyone is approachable, this is what he will model too. I seldom talk to strangers (not because I’m afraid or too busy but more because when I’m running errands or something, I’m normally in my own head a lot, thinking about things) so my 2 year old isn’t very social either. I am always polite, however, and this is a difference and an attitude I enforce with my child. I always say hello, how are you and please and thank you and have a good day. Since my son’s just now mastering full phrases, he’ll often do a bilingual ramble to strangers, ‘bye,bye,adios,tank u,gacias’. :)

  34. I have a lovely, outgoing 4 year old as well and have LOVED The Mother Company’s – well everything- but especially their safety show. The teach good safety principles without fear and it has been a great way to start conversations with my little man about important things.

  35. I love this photo, and that you allow your children to talk to strangers. I taught my daughters to be friendly to everybody but not to trust everybody: Trust had to be earned. And I told them if they ever got lost from me inside a store to go to a salesperson or manager and have me paged, which they did – a lot!

  36. Good to see you back Jo! And Toby always makes my day. I laughed so hard with his, “I LOVE NISSANS!” statement. Still laughing. What’s up with the Nissans??? Now I’m wondering if he now has a bus with school (although close-by). We all have our white and black keys piano moments– blogging keeps us buffered I think to some degree with the wider community of women and men to share and emote with. Keeping You, Alex and family in prayer. Hugs.

  37. We are an American family living in Thailand and the “stranger danger” is really an American phenom. Our children are adored here by strangers. When we were in Mexico, our kids were carried around by strangers. I can’t count the amount of strangers’ selfies our kids have been in here. I wish more Americans would stop being afraid of the unknown. It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s “bad risk manager” theory. Enjoy life:)

  38. The other great thing about chatting to the checkout chick etc is it creates community. They’re another set of eyes looking out for your family. I’ll never forget my Mum coming to town and taking my daughter to the supermarket in Chinatown- despite the language barrier the checkout chick recognised my daughter (then about 18 months) and bailed up my Mum because she’d never seen her before. How awesome is that! She wasn’t rude but said “You are not this baby’s mother, who are you?” Mum said “I’m her grandmother” and this fantastic woman still probed that little bit further “Are you the mother of the mother or the mother of the father?”. It could pass as small talk but she got useful info that could have really helped if someone had grabbed my kid. Even in a big city like this there is community if you help build it.

  39. Sounds like Toby would fare well in the South! I live in Birmingham, AL, and although it’s not a small town, I still wave at every car that passes when I exercise… Like a 3 mile loop. My 20 month old aggressively waves at strangers in the grocery store. It’s funny, I’ll be shopping and look up to see random men smiling and waving at him and then tell me, “he was waving!!”, haha!

  40. I LOVE NISSANS has absolutely made my day! Also, if Drew is reading any of the comments, I just wanted to say I love your blog too, and congrats on becoming a new dad!

  41. Don’t have kids yet, but I agree it’s important that they talk to strangers. I remember when I was in my mid-twenties seeing a kid, who was crying in some public space. I asked him if he was ok, in case he was lost (I didn’t see a guardian); and he looked so scared when I started talking to him, and just ran away. I still wonder if his parents instilled a terror of talking to strangers in him.

  42. There’s this great essay entitled, “No Man’s Land,” by Eula Biss that discusses, amongst other things, the fact that we encourage fear of people we don’t know. We pass fear on as a “courtesy,” which translates to us “othering” people we don’t know. Teaching our children from a very young age that people are just that, people, is integral to combatting this and keeping us from living a fearful, insular life. Keep up the gregariousness, Toby! You’re killing it, buddy!

  43. My mom and I had a secret word as well. When I was young I hated pickles so that was our word. Luckily I never had to use it but, like you, it was nice to know that there was a safety net if need be. Great idea if you ever have to send someone your child might not know well.

  44. We took our 1 and 3 year old boys to Indonesia this November, and I was a bit nervous with the crowds so we had ID bracelets made (we used Road ID) with their names, our cell phone numbers, and allergies. They wore them 24 hours a day, all month – it was perfect. We plan to use them at amusements parks and whatnot in the future :)

  45. our son is on the autism spectrum and he loves to talk to adults. he doesn’t understand proximity, though, and thinks he can hug strangers. so we’ve discussed differences in strangers, acquaintances, friends and family using a visual chart. not everyone is a friend!

  46. I laughed when I read about your secret phrase. Growing up, the secret phrase in our house was “Tulip Garden”. There must be something extra safe about tulips!!

  47. Love that Toby loves to converse. As kids we were taught to trust our gut feelings about people. Also, so many children sadly are hurt by people known to them, so how useful is it to teach stranger danger? I think teaching
    Them to feel safe to tell you and their dad anything that feels funny is so important

  48. really interesting post! NY IS sesame street! hehehe…great idea to have a password with your child ;)

  49. Ever since my Little was old enough to wave and say “hi!” he has been doing so to almost everyone we would pass by going in or out of a store. I think it’s healthy to teach them to answer strangers when they ask a question or to say thank you when they compliment. He is two now and when he is asked how he is doing, he answers back “great! How you doing?” We are all in this life together and a quick hello or how do you do from a little person brightens {most} people’s day. I love your idea of a safe word/phrase and will more than likely use that as he grows up. I want him to be able to love others even through simple interactions.

  50. I’m certainly not a parent, or close to being one, but I remember some of how my parents dealt with this for my sister and I. Until we were about 9 or 10, we each wore those metal ID bracelets (the kind you could order from a catalog back in the 90s) that had our names, address and phone number on it. It was reassuring to me as a kid that if anything happened, I had all the info I needed right on my wrist. Maybe they’ve made a more attractive version of that now ;)

    I love the idea of looking for a mom/grandma, or one commenter’s idea of looking for a Starbucks/Gap in a city. The only time my sister and I ever got lost was on a hiking trail. Fortunately a bicyclist came by and showed us to the ranger station where my parents had already reported us missing! We got there right before they sent out a helicopter!! (We’d only been gone 30 minutes or so)

  51. Definitely, I’m also the lady who talks to all the little kids when I am out and my kids are not around – I struck up an interesting conversation about trains and helicopters with a 4 year old at Penn station today as we were waiting for the train. I think we spend too much time of stranger danger when the worlds is actually a safer place than it was, I think about all the plans that I had as a child with my parents and we never used them! I love the idea of a password because my kids would feel like they were spies(this is seriously what they would think) but I worry in an emergency I would forget to tell my friend what it was! I know the friends I would be sending in an emergency are close friends who my kids know well that should be enough

  52. I wish you had a “save” feature on your blog so I could save all of the posts like this one that I want to remember for my girl. Fat Tulip passwords! #s on arms! Find a mom! Also, I LOVE NISSANS! is the best thing I’ve heard all day. hahaha :)

    Such great tips, thank you Joanna!

  53. I love this post! I do not have kids yet so I guess that makes me one of the “strangers”. I always love having casual chats with kids. They typically have the best views on everything in life. This post has such great advice on talking to your kids about strangers. Also Toby seems like such a sweet guy, he inspires me to be more positive and out going in my day to day interactions, thanks Toby!

  54. tk says...

    Just because statistically a child is more likely to be harmed by some one they know, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taught how to interact with strangers. I think it is totally fine when my kids interact with strangers when mom or dad is present. If they are alone, they should not talk to people they do not know or know well. Any well meaning adult will understand if a child ignores when they are on their own.

  55. My son is 7 and in first grade and in his health class at school, the school psychologist is introducing the topic of strangers and of how to differentiate between a friendly stranger and a stranger who might be harmful. The school sent some interesting literature home to help parents participate in the conversation. He seems at an age where he can begin to understand this in simple terms and I support how the school is engaging in the topic. That said, my child has felt a bit shy around strangers since he was 3 and reluctantly speaks to clerks in shops, people in line, etc. I have always encouraged him to be friendly and I’m very chatty in public with strangers but I also respect that he might not be as outgoing as I am. I do now require he make eye contact and say thank you when we purchase something in a store or that he order his own meal in a restaurant and say please and thank you in that kind of setting.

  56. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard and I tell my kids is that adults should never need/ask kids for anything. If they do, walk away.

    They don’t need help finding an address or a lost puppy for example.

    “I LOVE NISSANS” is just the best!

  57. My amazing pediatrician had great advice on the passcode
    Her thought
    If someone is close enough to try and use some secret word then odds are its not a good situation and they could easily grab the child
    She feels that a pass code is a bad idea
    If a child is alone and a stranger approaches and tries to talk the best guidance is to tell the child to get away and find your parent. The child should not engage and attempt a passcode conversation. This applies more in the playing outside, riding bike, walking home from school etc

  58. Number on arm, check. We always do that.
    We did that when abroad and the AWESOME couple who found our lost son crying in a square (at an amusement park) actually made that international call to make sure our boy got back with his parents.

    Gosh.

    I always talk to strangers so I am guessing my kids will either a) find it something to AVOID because of their embarrassing mom, or b) adopt because of the awesomness of it. :-)
    I don’t have the answer and I suppose only time will tell.

    I’ve had a few careful talks about what to avoid (say no to invitations to follow strangers into anywhere). But my kids are still young and not moving about too much on their own still, will have to expand the talk as they grow.

  59. Welcome back lovely!
    Absolutely I have always advocated that my 19 and 11 year old daughters talk to strangers. Strangers are just friends we have not met yet, right? Here in England we have the stranger danger thing, I did advise them that it is possible but didn’t labour the point. Now, they are confident girls who can hold a pleasant conversation with anyone! I consider that to be a life skill. Take care Lisa x

  60. Absolutely, always – couldn’t stop her. I envy her confidence, because I wasn’t that way & enjoy seeing the interest she’s taking in others.

  61. Although I am not a parent yet, I work in School Psychology and am very interested in how parents handle this type of thing. I see all extremes at work. I listened to an amazing radio show recently on the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) which featured the author of the book about Free Range Kids (or parenting). The author was fantastic and talked very intelligently about how nowadays so many parents jump to the worse case scenario and don’t really let their children ‘live’ anymore. We want to protect them from everything. She made the amazing argument about how car accidents are the #1 killer to children but parents put their children into vehicles daily yet they are terrified to let them talk to strangers or walk home from school (if taught how to be safe etc.). And as the author clearly points out, statistically, there are no one abductions or horrible things that happen to children than there was in the 1950’s or 60’s when parents were generally more relaxed. Anyways. All very interesting! When things are done safely – I don’t see why not!

  62. The Safety Show DVD by Ruby’s Studio is excellent and shows kids many of the points mentioned here, in ways that are not scary and make sense to kids. My 3 and 5 year olds have watched it multiple times. Highly recommend.

  63. I couldn’t help but think of the Etan Patz story. It’s alleged he was lured to the basement of his local bodega by someone he probably talked to often and felt comfortable with.

  64. “I LOVE NISSANS!” That totally made my day.

  65. I’ve never liked the idea of teaching “stranger danger” – we’re all strangers. I’ve noticed through years of watching my cousins, nephews and nieces and my own kiddos that most of the time all it takes for them to see a stranger as a “friend” is for that person to tell them his or her name. Then most (younger) kids no longer associate that person with “stranger” because he/she is Harry or Sue or whatever. Obviously not a stranger.

    I’m trying to teach my 4 year old to follow his instincts/guts about people. I ask him how he feels about saying talking to a person or whatever. and if he feels shy or his tummy feels funny then he doesn’t have to. Our exception is at family/friend gatherings he is taught to say hello when we arrive (as a family) so as not to be rude, but after that if he doesn’t feel comfortable talking, it’s ok not to.

    That said, I was both taught stranger danger as a kid and molested by a trusted neighbor, so I may have a skewed sense of things.

  66. As an extroverted, 27 year old I’ll say that I’ve been talking to strangers since I was little. It made me feel grown up, a recognition and validation from the tall people of the world. I always wanted to order at restaurants, talk to the cashiers etc.

    Everyone has a story and I wanted to know it.

    I love the ‘are you a daddy?’ question. I also love that quote from a few weeks ago when Toby asked if he would have a chin when he grew up. Kids see things in such different magical ways. I love it. There’s not the same rationalization we learn as adults.

  67. So many great thoughts here! My parents made up a little song for me that had my name and address. We’d practice it before we went to amusement parks and the like. But far and away the best thing my mom taught me was that if we ever got lost, I had to stay in one spot. I shouldn’t look for her; she would look for me. That also usually meant I would be pretty close to wherever she last saw me.

  68. Absolutely, and hold the door open, with a smile to anyone/everyone. Because of that they are young people who are socially well-adjusted and kind and mannerly. I think the mannerly part gets lost somehow, in the me-me thing, but for my kids it was imperative that they hold that door and they started at the time they were physically able to do so. I think it gave them, early on, an awareness of manners, of course, but also that there are other people in the world and that helping someone get through a door shows kindness and concern for others. Such a simple thing with, for my kids, far-reaching effects.

  69. I don’t have kids (yet) but as a teacher, I do work with them a lot and try to keep a pulse on things like this. When I was little, “stranger danger” was very much a threat. I remember helping my mom in the grocery store and being prepared to throw down the eggs I fetched for her and yell, “THIS IS NOT MY FATHER. THIS IS NOT MY MOTHER.” at the top of my lungs should anyone approach me.

    However, research shows that most cases of abuse or abduction are by people kids already know (which eliminates the “stranger” part of stranger danger.) It’s my understanding that kids these days are taught in schools to be wary of “tricky” adults. These are adults who ask kids for favors or tell them it’s okay to lie or keep a secret. It makes very little sense that an adults would need kids’ help with something (beyond opening a door when their hands are full, or something like that) and telling them to keep a secret from their parents should be a red flag.

  70. Whoa! Huge fan of the blog, so cool to see you post something I wrote and say that YOU loved it. I just became a parent this past week, so it means the world that you posted this. Thanks so much! We love your blog, keep doing everything you do, it’s the absolute best. You’re a joy to read.

  71. I strongly recommend the find a mom with kids approach. My 4yo got separated from us at a fair (egregious miscommunication with the husb about who was watching which kid). My otherwise painfully shy daughter calmly went up to a mom, explained that she couldn’t find her parents and the Mom took her right over to the information booth where we were reunited quickly. It is important to talk to kids about what to do because my shy little girl handled everything really really well (better than I did!).

  72. Of course!!!
    My older boy love talking, love looking at him while speaking to stranger!
    My little girl is only one year, but she is quite shy… i am not sure about if she would like to talk to strangers….

  73. Dr. Sherryll Kraizer has studied “stranger danger” for more than 30 years and has some GREAT tips on how to raise kids in an environment that empowers kids to understand when they are not safe and what to do about it. safechild.org (p.s. – I only post this b/c I’ve gone to one of her seminars and her info was great!)

  74. I think its a good point made by another commenter here, that strangers are probably not as worrisome as people in the child’s life who has legit access to your children- we should be talking to our kids about how to express when they are uncomfortable with something and how to tell someone else that they trust. That to me is a more real danger than someone being a dangerous stranger…

  75. I also had a password growing up! If there was ever an emergency and someone else had to pick me up from school or something, I knew to ask for the password.

    I’ve seen people put those bracelets on their kids where, normally, you’d put a name or initials, but they put a phone number instead.

  76. My friend had temporary tattoos left over from her wedding with her and her husbands names on them. As a joke she said she would just put them on her kid in case they got lost and her mom ended up ordering temporary tattoos with their phone number too! At first she thought I was hilarious, but now she loves it

  77. You must read “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin deBecker. He talks about this very topic and offers great suggestions. It’s actually important for kids to know how to talk to a stranger if needed and we should encourage them to practice. And yes, if they’re lost or in trouble, find a mom with kids. Don’t find a policeman (security guards look like policemen–so do other uniformed people who might be great and nice but might also be ex cons or whatever). Anyway Gavin de Becker, check him out! He also wrote “The Gift of Fear” which I think is a must-read for women.

  78. “Are you a daddy?” “What kind of car is this?” “I LOVE NISSANS!” hahaha. My day is made!

    I live in NYC and a friend has taught her young daughter to look for a Starbucks if she gets lost, since there is one on every corner.

  79. Living in different countries sort of took away my decision on when and if my son should interact with strangers. While we were in Turkey, people would come up to us and take my son out of my hands and cuddle and play with him. Also, in Italy they are definitely a baby friendly country. So, my son is used to strangers and I do worry sometimes about him wandering off with anyone, but I am also glad that he loves to interact with others from different cultures. I think once he is older (he is only 2 now) we can teach him friendly versus not-so-friendly strangers. So, for now I have to keep my hawk eye vision on high alert.

    I love the cell phone on the arm technique! :)

    -Erin
    http://www.thecurlyroots.com

  80. My mom told us to always look for a mom with kids also! Pro tips. I love the password idea and all these comments!

  81. We do let and encourage our son (2 yo) to talk to strangers. He often times greets strangers at they walk by. It doesn’t concern me too much, but I mostly get a bit heartbroken if they don’t respond. I don’t want him to stop trying because people ignore. There are still plenty of warm people out there though.

  82. these comments are fascinating! (and thank you, lindsay:)

  83. I was just thinking about the secret word thing, ours was Boulder growing up! I encourage and praise Bjorn when he talks to strangers, particularly when he is thankful to people doing a service (driving a bus, bagging our groceries) I think it’s wonderful to see people and engage with him and I want him to find joy in doing so. As far as the stranger danger, I am reassured that it’s largely a myth. Plus I think a kidnapper would be less likely to target a chatty, feisty kid!

  84. Last year Rebecca had a post on Stranger Danger and why it’s not a great thing to teach your kids (Girls Gone Child), and it got me thinking about this as my daughter had just turned 4. At this point, almost EVERYONE is a stranger – I don’t want her to be afraid of people in general. We talk a lot about leaning about her own instincts if someone seems creepy (mostly for when she’s older) and certainly if she ever gets lost look for a mommy or daddy with children. They’ll make sure she gets found, and there never seems to be a cop just right there when you need one. Also, I never really let her out of my eyesight when we’re out. I love the idea of a family password. We have a family sound – if we want to get each others attention, we loudly say “cuckoooo!” in a certain tone of voice. It totally works, similar to my dad’s piercing whistle that had all us kids come from different directions when we were young.

  85. I always look forward to the Motherhood Mondays post–and this is yet another fascinating topic :) My daughter is almost three and also super chatty like Toby. Whenever we’re at the playground, she usually spends more time chatting up the moms than she does with kids her age. I see it as a sign of curiosity and also as her fulfilling a need to feel connected to other people.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah though; I don’t think teaching “stranger danger” is as necessary as teaching kids to judge what feels like a comfortable/safe situation and what doesn’t.

  86. My 2 girls are the naturally skeptical type so they don’t talk to strangers too much not that I would necessarily stop them.

    I like some of the comments here. Strangers vs. trick/sneaky people and “you can talk to strangers, just don’t go anywhere with them”

    Also, there is a company (can’t remember the name, of course) that you can order temporary tattoos with your number on them rather than just writing your number on your kids’ arms.

  87. i was never encouraged to talk to anyone, which is why it always bewildered me when, as a teen, at a dinner party i would be quiet and my diplomatic parents would give me a lecture afterward about being rude. i am now awful at small talk and very very very rarely will strike up a conversation with just anyone.

    i have since tried to employ the “read anything/seen a new movie lately” trick when out at social setting. i also try to have an answer in case the question get flipped to me.

    this doesn’t really answer your question about talking to strangers, but it does tie back to me being awkward around strangers and people in general.

  88. definitely! my son is 1 1/2 so he doesn’t have a whole lot to converse about just yet, but walking around the city, riding the metro, people always want to interact with him and I think thats great. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the general idea of not instilling fear in my children. I’ve seen how parents and grandparents often either use fear as a tactic on purpose or through their wording subtly and I much prefer the idea of raising them to be open and trusting and brave because for me that is just a better way to go through life!

  89. My son is 4 and I don’t think I could prevent him from talking to strangers if I wanted to (and I don’t want to because he loves strangers.) We have boundaries, but making friendly conversation with people isn’t one of them. I like strangers, too (my husband dies a little every time we get in a cab or get a new Uber driver) so he comes by it honestly.

    His little sister is 2 and isn’t into strangers and that’s okay, too. She can watch and listen while clinging to my leg.

  90. First I have to say I missed you! I read your blog every day. Without fail. I “save” your posts for when I know I’ll have extra time uninterrupted, like while I’m waiting for my kids to get off the school bus. I hope you had a lovely trip, even though the reason was bittersweet.
    About strangers…well, it’s not easy to approach the topic without scaring the bajesus out of a kid and encouraging agoraphobia, but I guess it’s about knowing your kid and how they absorb serious things like that. I think it’s important to touch upon the topic of “good touch, bad touch”. I tell both of my kids, 7 and 4, that the only person who is allowed to touch them is THEM. If someone makes them feel uncomfortable then come and tell mom or dad. My 4 yr old is a big-time hug machine – especially toward strangers. Even ones whose personal hygiene is appears questionable. Gasp! I just take it one day at a time. Every day is an adventure.

  91. This past December, a little boy in front of me at an amusement park (in Florida, thank God) had a fun little tag clipped to the back of his t-shirt that said something like: “Hi, I’m Tony. I’m six years old and I don’t speak English. Please call my mom if I get lost.” A number was written below it. What a creative way to take extra precautions!

  92. Don’t have kids, but I absolutely would, if I had them. Stranger Danger doesn’t keep kids safer; statistics show children are much more likely to be harmed by people they know. I think we can all agree that it was a failure as a safety initiative. Here’s to talking to strangers and making new friends!

  93. The minute I saw this topic I thought of that Berenstain Bears book! I have such a clear image of the friendly happy park and the dark creepy park :)

  94. We had a code phrase that was never used too! “Aunt Alice lives in Sikeston” I love that I still remember it and that my parents did that.

  95. Is there really a let? I, unless spoken to first, would happily go about my days without talking to a stranger beyond a nod as you walk past or a hello as you get on a bus. My son would shrivel up and die without more socialization. But I’ve never forced him to talk if he didn’t want to- sometimes people give you the skeeives and I think we should follow our intuition. I have read him books about stranger danger, what people can do to kids, AND we have a safe word we practice for someone to pick him up with.

  96. I think there is too much focus on “stranger danger” overall, when strangers really pose the least danger to kiddos. I work at an advocacy center for sexual assault victims doing prevention and education work mostly with children; most attacks, assaults and danger to children come from people that the family knows (including family members). There should be more focus on how children can express discomfort with people they are told they can trust, letting children decide what they are comfortable with in interactions, and teaching about “good touch/bad touch.” Just another something to think about! :)

  97. I love this topic! I’ve always liked what my mother-in-law says she told my husband when he was a child: “you should talk to strangers-just don’t go anywhere with them.” She wanted him to be curious about the world, but smart and safe. Think the advice worked out well!

  98. This is something about which I’ve thought a lot, because the concept of stranger danger is difficult for my chatty little girls to grasp. To them, once you’ve made introductions, that stranger is now a new friend.

    I can’t remember where I first heard this method, but I’ve adopted it as my own: we don’t need to be wary of strangers, we need to be wary of “tricky” or “sneaky” people. An adult who tells a child to lie or cover for them is tricky. Someone who says, “your mom and dad don’t need to know about this” or “it will be our little secret” is sneaky. These are the ones you want your kid to run from, not the friendly grocery-store bagger. To me, this makes so much sense, and it helps children to understand a concrete reason for danger rather than a generic rule.

  99. My girl also talks to literally everyone. People in shops laugh a lot, saying that we’re probably never bored having the little chatterbox around. Sometimes it’s a bit awkward because she’ll tell embarrassing things as well. Sometimes I wonder what she tells her teacher, haha. And sometimes it scares me. She once ran into a stranger’s arms when we were travelling and walking in a wood. He saw her, spread his arms and she ran to him. The my heart races and I think to myself: “is this a good idea?”. But she was only 3 or 4. Shoudl I really scare her? We’re usually still close by.

  100. We also talk to strangers. I don’t remember when we talked about stranger danger (my boys are 13 and 10) but I tell them if they are lost in a city to go to a mom or go to a Starbucks or Gap and ask for the manager. I figure there are tons of those, it is a public place, and they will have a phone. I have used the putting my phone number on my kids’ arm before. In some ways I worry about this more now they are older and I don’t have my eyes as closely on them. I know 13 sounds very old to you but in many ways they are still very much little boys. Just taller.

  101. Jo – Kidpower is an amazing international organization that teaches kids personal power skills, including how to interact with strangers. There are classes for kids ages 4 to adults and the approach is so empowering and so refreshing – your kids will come away believing in themselves rather than terrified of the scary world. Incredible stuff and highly recommended!

  102. “I LOVE NISSANS!” haha! Jo, that made my day!

  103. My daughter is only 12 months so I don’t have a ton if experience with this, but, I did just write her an email (for her to read in the future) about how I don’t mind if she doesn’t smile or wave a strangers. Some people get upset and call her serious if she doesn’t smile. But why should she? They are strangers! Now she always smiles and waves at children even if they don’t notice her. As she gets older I hope to teach her to be polite but that she doesn’t have to give smiles, waves, or hugs if she’s uncomfortable. Excited to see what others say here.

  104. Absolutely talk to strangers!! I mean, unless your kid is alone and trying to get from point A to point B. But you (and i) are probably many years off from that excursion. Also, it’s look for a GRANDMOTHER type. grey hair. that’s who you want your kid to approach when lost!