When my son, now closing in on ten, was three years old, I had many intense discussions with him about strangers.
Stay away from strangers.
Don't trust strangers.
If a stranger approaches you, run away YELLING even if they know your name!
We even did some role playing; my husband or I pretended that we were the stranger and we used all the best lines on him:
"Hey, kid, wants some candy?"
"Hi, little boy, your Mommy is sick and she wanted me to drive you home."
"Hi there, your Daddy wanted me to pick you up, because he and your Mommy had to take your cat to the doctor."
"Remember me? I work with your Daddy! He wanted me to pick you up and bring you to his office so that you can hang out with him! How fun is THAT?!?!?"
"Hey! I can't find my puppy! He's probably scared; can you help me find my lost puppy?"
After a bit of work, and a few tears, he got it. He learned to be wary of strangers. I was ever so proud of my parenting.
But months after we started our indoctrination, I had a very interesting discussion with a trusted friend of mine. It was one of those moments, one where in one concise statement on her part, I realized that a lot of the "truths" I'd held dear were actually never thoroughly examined.
My friend said, "I don't believe in teaching stranger danger; it's more probable that my kids will need the help of a stranger than it is they will be approached by someone malevolent. It's a more likely a scenario that one of my kids will get lost in a grocery store and need to find an adult to help them."
When I was in preschool, I remember being very comforted by the fact that my mom or dad always picked me up early. For whatever reason, I dreaded the idea of being the last kid waiting for their parents.
And then, one day, it happened. Not only was I the last child waiting, but pick-up time came and went. The sun started setting, and I sat at the big window facing the street waiting for my ride. Eventually the teachers left me in the care of the cleaning lady who'd recently arrived.
(I know this sounds unbelievable by today's standards, but this was the early seventies...times were different.)
It was dark outside, and I continued staring out the window, willing my ride to arrive. I was over the burning shame of being the last one picked up, and starting to be afraid that I was forever forgotten. The cleaning woman was done cleaning the facility and ready to go home.
She looked at me. I looked at her. We were both confused as to how to proceed.
I don't remember much of the ride in her car to her home, other than thinking that my mom would never find me now. When we walked from her front walk into her home and directly into her kitchen, she asked me if I wanted a cookie.
"What kind?" I asked. Even then I was.
"Lorna Dunes," she answered.
Yippee! Lorna Dunes were and are my favorite cookie (I know...BORING).
Once I had my Lorna stash, she asked me if I wanted to watch television.
Guess what was on?
MARY TYLER MOORE! Yes, my favorite show. I don't know what it says about me that I was a preschooler whose favorite cookie was (is) Lorna Dunes, and that my fave show was Mary Tyler Moore (okay, that's not true...she was (is) second to Mister Rogers).
Nevertheless, I was a happy little lost girl. I had my favorite cookie and my (second) favorite show. Not long after the show started, my mom arrived. My reaction?
Oh, no, now I can't watch MARY TYLER MOORE!
Turns out that the person who was supposed to pick me up...well, forgot. When this was discovered, a bunch of freaked out adults converged on my preschool. They found a note taped to the front door by the cleaning woman detailing what had happened, and where they could find me.
Find me, they did. They found me all happy with my Lorna Dunes and Mary Tyler Moore.
So, anyway, after the discussion with my friend, and upon some reflection, I started to wonder how much of a disservice I had done to my son over the past months, what with teaching him that the world is full of bad people that he should avoid.
After that, my stranger danger talks with him (and in more recently, with my daughter) have been far more precise. I haven't taught them that every stranger is dangerous.
I've taught them that, if they are ever in a situation where they need help, there are the strangers they should seek out first.
In my opinion, they should first look for someone in a uniform. For example: policeman, grocery bagger, postal worker, crossing guard, whatever. In all likelihood that person is working, has many eyes on them, and will readily be able to guide a child to a safe place that is set up to help lost children.
My second stringers, so to speak, are moms with kids...especially, moms with strollers and babies. Nothing is a sure bet, but I'd rather my lost child reach out to another mom (in the absence of a person in uniform) with her own passel of kids than the lone person sitting on the park bench reading a novel. For one thing, that mom is probably the safer bet. Also, they are probably more familiar with the procedures for taking care of a lost child, and will know how to comfort them as well.
But I comfort myself by knowing it is far more likely that they will experience the kindness of strangers than the worst that humankind has to offer.