Family Matters

Talking to Strangers? Rewriting the Rules of Childhood

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Long before Leiby Kletzky was gruesomely murdered in Brooklyn after the lost 8-year-old asked a man he didn’t know for help earlier this month, I made sure my three kids knew my cell phone number by heart. Even the 4-year-old can rattle off the digits, but Leiby’s death changed everything I thought I knew about stranger danger.

We teach our children not to talk to strangers, but — as in Leiby’s case —sometimes they have to. After all, if they’re lost, how are my kids ever going to be found unless they first approach a stranger to lend them a cell phone so they can call me?

Perhaps, I realized — even as I wincingly told my kids that a boy my oldest child’s age had been killed by a stranger — that “don’t talk to strangers” truism needs to be revised.

I didn’t tell my kids about Leiby’s fate to scare them. I used it as an excuse to talk to them about strangers and how to interact with them. Because it’s inevitable that they’ll have to. My children don’t have their own phones, so if they were ever lost, they’d have to ask a stranger for help. Look for someone in uniform is a tough concept for a 4-year-old to grasp; to her, a uniform could be a princess outfit. In fact, when recently discussing a fire escape plan for our family, I explained to her that although generally she shouldn’t leap into the arms of muscular men she doesn’t know, if one comes stomping through her house in the event of a fire, she shouldn’t run and hide. It was all very confusing.

It’s better, I’ve learned after speaking with experts, to advise lost children to seek out a mom with kids of her own. Chances are, the empathy factor will mean they’ll be willing to help.

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Next lesson: empowerment. We also teach our kids to listen to adults. Is that why Leiby went with Levi Aron – the man accused of killing him – to his apartment? Perhaps Leiby felt unsure about following someone he didn’t know, but it’s also equally likely that he felt uncomfortable saying no to a person who had promised to help him find his parents. For sure, the number of kids kidnapped and killed each year by strangers is low in comparison to the number killed in car accidents — 50 versus more than 1,300 — but if your child is one of the 50, statistics hardly matter.

“So often we teach our kids to be respectful to adults and always say yes,” says Molly Cirillo, community outreach coordinator for the National Child Protection Training Center.

“But we need to empower kids to be comfortable talking to adults and be comfortable saying no.”

It’s all part of rewriting the rules of stranger danger. “That message is not effective,” says Cirillo. “Stranger danger portrays a man jumping out of a bush with a trenchcoat on, and children are trained to look just for that.”

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children agrees; like Cirillo, the Center focuses on teaching kids to speak up for themselves and never go anywhere with anyone they’re not supposed to be with. But cases like Leiby’s happen and we need to talk to our kids about how to handle them — namely, scream loudly, “You’re not my mom” until someone pays attention and never, no matter what, get into a car or go into someone’s home unless you’ve got parental permission.

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But in refining the stranger danger axiom, Cirillo prefers to teach children about “tricky people” rather than zero in on sinister strangers. Who are they? “Anyone who tries to get you to break your safety rules,” she says.

If you’re lost, those rules include:

  • Always staying in a public place, generally where you are when you first realize you’re lost.
  • Seeking help from a person in uniform or a mom with kids.
  • Saying “no” if someone tries to touch or hurt you.
  • Checking first with parents or other trusted adults before going anywhere, accepting anything or getting into a car with someone.
  • Taking a friend along when going places.

After I initially wrote about Leiby’s death making parents uneasy, I found one commenter who advised safety in numbers particularly instructive. The writer suggested dispatching kids in groups; my husband concurred.

The few times I have let my kids walk alone, I’ve made sure they’re together, holding hands. For sure, it would be naïve to think that a trio of little kids could foil someone intent on doing them harm. But if nothing else, I like the sense of responsibility and intimacy it fosters.

Safety in numbers. Now there’s a parenting axiom I can feel (sort of) good about.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.