"The rules we've been teaching our kids are all wrong. And it's putting them in danger."

My introduction to the concept of “stranger danger” happened when I was nine years old.

My father drove my three sisters and me to Truro, a remote town in South Australia, one night. It was dark.

The place seemed empty. It was very eerie – but that was mostly because my dad was very calmly telling us the story of the series of murders that made the town notorious ten years earlier.

His stressed to us that each victim, all young women, got into the murderers’ car voluntarily after chance meetings.

Suffice to say, we were shit scared, and his cautionary tale stayed with us, encouraging us to make conservative choices about our personal safety as we grew up.

There was method in his madness, of course. As the father of four daughters, he was absolutely terrified for us in a world where horrible things happen every day.

However, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that as young adults, we decided that dad was a paranoid control freak.

We hated that we were never allowed to attend sleepovers at friends’ homes as kids, and even after we left home and shared a house at uni, he would call at midnight and demand to speak to each of us to ensure we were there.

My how we hated his over­vigilant, what we would now call ‘helicopter’, parenting. As parents ourselves, we now understand that fierce need to protect your children. But still, it was not a footloose and fancy ­free childhood or youth.

We all do bad things. The Motherish team reveals all. 

My experience has made me try to strike a more moderate balance when it comes to educating my nine year old about personal safety.

We haven’t made a midnight road trip to a town haunted by murders; but he does know that a little man name William Tyrrell is missing – and that he went missing from his grandmother’s front yard.

He knows what an Amber Alert is, and the history of why it’s called an Amber Alert. But in general, I have tried to emphasize awareness of his surroundings and exercising caution, rather than a total distrust of anyone new – otherwise he will never leave home! But more importantly, he might not approach a “stranger” when he needs to.

I am not remotely a child safety expert, but my feeling is that rather than a blanket “stranger danger” approach, educating our kids to make informed decisions so that they are aware and can make their own assessments, is crucial to their personal safety.

And this applies even with people they know and are meant to be able to trust. So these are the things I’ve told my son about his personal safety:

  1. There are degrees of strangers. People you should be able to trust are teachers, police officers and doctors. We meet other “ok strangers” constantly, and it’s definitely about context. They are the old lady that Mum drove home from the shops when it was raining – because I used my skills to make an assessment about her. And the café owner who gave you an extra scoop of ice cream. But there is a difference between those interactions, and ones that put your personal safety at risk.
  2. Listen to your body and to what your mind is telling you. If you feel nervous or uncomfortable, those are your “instincts” – they are feelings telling you to be careful. You absolutely do not have to comply with any instruction you are worried about, just because you are told to do so.
  3. You do not need to be polite to an adult just because they expect that. You are allowed to speak up for yourself and not obey the instructions of an adult, regardless of whether it’s a relative, a family friend or stranger. You can scream, even if it’s a situation where you think you’re not supposed to use a loud voice. However, none of this applies to the relationship between you and me, because Mum really needs your unquestioning compliance to help her not lose her shit every day.
  4.  You don’t ever have to help an adult do anything, especially if it separates you from your group or from me. Being asked to keep a secret by someone is a warning sign. (In fact, I once fired a babysitter who told him “Don’t tell your mum you stayed up an hour later because I was on the phone.” I was furious about the message that sent – it’s not my son’s responsibility to look after her secrets.)
    (Image via iStock.)
  5. If you are ever lost, stay still and call my name out because I will be looking for you. If that doesn’t work, go to an information desk or a check out, or find a mum with children. Do not ever leave with a man who says they will help you find me. (This advice does not eliminate risk, but given that most child sex offenders are male, it certainly minimizes it.)
  6. If anyone ever tells you that I sent them to find you, whether it appears to be someone in authority such as a police officer, or not – ask them what my name is. That is our code word – my name. As we look entirely different, and my name is unusual, they would have to be extremely lucky to guess my name.
  7. If someone threatens you with physical violence if you don’t leave with them to go to another location, and you are in a public area, call their bluff. Most baddies want quiet and quick obedience to increase their chances of success; make it hard for them. There is a good chance they will prefer a speedy escape than attracting attention by hurting you immediately. And don’t ever worry if anyone ever tells you they will hurt me – Mum is a badass who can look after herself.
  8. Defend yourself. Yell. Kick and poke. Pinch the skin that covers the underside of the baddie’s bicep, where Mum’s chicken arms are. That skin is very delicate, and it will cause a person to release their hold on you, even if just for a second, which might make all the difference. It’s not “gross” like poking someone’s eye, and it bloody hurts the victim; I know, because ever since I taught you this move, you use it on me to get out of hugs that last longer than a millisecond when we’re in public. I applaud you each time (after calling you a little shit) and say “I hope you are brave enough to do that if you ever really need to.”

How do you teach your children to act around strangers?

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