The mixed message of ‘Stranger Danger’

“Stranger danger” is the idea or warning that all strangers can potentially be dangerous. It is an example of a moral panic that people experience regarding anyone that they are unfamiliar with in society. The phrase stranger danger is intended to sum up the danger associated with adults whom children do not know. – Wikipedia

Stranger danger


I think we have all heard the term ‘Stranger Danger’ at some point in our lives. It is a short and sweet way to warn our kids about potential danger from unknown adults. I have used this term before myself but never really drove it home with my kids because it’s a phrase that has always seemed insufficient to me but I never unpacked why…until now.

Don’t talk to Strangers, except when…

Have you told your child not to talk to Strangers? I would be surprised if you had not. Strangers are an unknown in our lives and in the twisted world we live in today, you never know who could be a threat to your child. But here’s a question, have you ever told your child to greet a cashier? A shop assistant who said they were cute? A friendly car guard? A friend of yours from high school that you bumped into at the mall? Of course you have. But isn’t that a Stranger?

I first noticed this double standard when my shy but very friendly (and respectful) daughter would ignore the greetings of cashiers when we went shopping. At first I was mortified because she would just stare at them and I would say ‘Say hello love, it’s rude not to greet’ and then she would grudgingly say Hello. I put it down to shyness and I didn’t push her but then it kept happening and I would get frustrated because she wouldn’t respond when people asked how she was or made a comment about how pretty she is.

One day while driving home I asked her why she didn’t like to say hello to people who greeted her and she said ‘But Mummy! They’re strangers!’ She was absolutely right. As a parent I was giving her mixed messages. On the one hand I was saying ‘Don’t talk to strangers!’ then I was literally forcing her to talk to strangers! How confusing for a kid. How eye opening for me.

Since then I have amended my cautionary words to “Don’t talk to strangers if Mummy and Daddy aren’t there. If someone greets you, you should greet them back but you don’t have to keep talking to them. If they keep talking to you then you say ‘I don’t talk to strangers’ and leave it at that.” I would rather my child be seen as rude than an easy target.

Say hello to the Uncle

Stranger danger

Coming from an Indian family, we grew up calling any adult man or woman Uncle or Aunty respectively. It is done as a sign of respect and is common practice among many cultures. Whether that person is a regular feature in the child’s life or a once off visitor is irrelevant.

I don’t enforce this Uncle/Aunty situation with my kids and here’s why:

  • The majority of child abuse is done by someone the child knows
  • Turning someone into an Aunt or Uncle gives them a sense of closeness to the child that doesn’t always exist
  • There is an automatic barrier created with adults on one side who are seen as always right, and kids on the other who have to listen to adults


Give the Aunty a hug

Stranger danger

Have you heard your parents saying this to you growing up? Have you said it to your child? This is so common and in many ways natural. When people see a little kid, especially a child related to someone they care about, they naturally want to show affection to that child. This is often done in the form of a hug or a kiss on the cheek.

This is something I have always hated. I’m not a hugger, it doesn’t come naturally to me unless I am very close to the person and even then I won’t always hug as a greeting. Kissing on the cheek also gives me the heebie jeebies but I have mastered the air kiss (where you lightly touch your cheek to the other person and make a kissing sound without your lips actually touching their skin) so if needed that’s what I do.

My issue with this is that we, as parents, teach our kids that their bodies are their own and that no one is allowed to touch them without their permission. Then we give someone else permission to hug them. It is not uncommon for that person to be a complete stranger to the child. It’s another mixed message that is difficult for children to grasp.

Choose your words carefully and your actions wisely

Don’t let anyone touch you, unless…’

‘No one is allowed to hug you if it makes you feel uncomfortable, except when…’

It’s not fair. We cannot expect kids to work out the exceptions to the rule and enforce them accurately. An alternative form of greeting would be a handshake or the more fun ‘high five’. Full body contact is not necessary to show respect.

The next time you are teaching your child an important safety lesson, think carefully about what you’re saying and then think of those words in its most literal form. That is how your kids are interpreting it. Is the message still clear? Is it still accurate? Do your actions support that message?

It isn’t easy being a parent and times change. What was the norm for our parents may not work for us and likewise, our kids are living in a very different world than what we grew up in. They face challenges that didn’t exist for us and it is our duty to make sure that they are confident in knowing what is right and wrong, confident to speak up against an adult if they feel uncomfortable and confident to correct us when we make mistakes, comfortable in the knowledge that they will be listened to.






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