Saturday, March 6, 2010

Danger Signs

I had an upgraded version of The Stranger Talk with my oldest on Friday night.

This is a talk we’ve had at least twice before, but as he gets older and interacts more – and with less supervision – with the greater world, I feel the need to reinforce it, and to be more specific about my concerns. He's not quite a pre-teen yet, but he's getting there, and I'm getting nervous.

So we talked about the usual issues: People you see in public places, people in shul, teachers and relatives and friends and friends’ parents and so on. And Internet use, naturally.

And I tried to help him define Danger Signs – ways to identify people as potential risks.

This is not simple. I don’t want to make my son paranoid and fearful around everyone he sees. I also don’t want to make him judgmental, so that everyone who doesn’t fit a certain ‘safe’ mold is considered defective.

Beyond the obvious reminders about being touched inappropriately or feeling intimidated, we came up with a couple of Danger Signs which should warn him to escape the situation:

• Adults who look to spend time with pre-teens, without parents present and without a formal role [teacher, shul rabbi].

• Adults who interact childishly with young children.

But I’m not even comfortable with those relatively simple signs. In one light, they are too limiting; #2 excludes adults who just like to joke around with kids. In another light, they are too permissive; #1 allows access to people who start out with a formal role but want to inappropriately transcend it.

So, of course, I tell him to ask me if you have any questions about particular situations, so that I will be able to modify the rules to fit specific cases.

I’d like to hear from other parents:

What are your Danger Signs? What do you tell your children to notice, and what do you tell them to do when they see it? And at what age?

All responses welcome.


  1. We also told our kids to watch out for certain words. If someone says "this is private just between you and me" or "this is not something to tell your parents about" or "we don't want to bother/worry your parents with this" or "what do parents know," that was a sign to tell us post haste.

  2. The people that don't belong in the Parent-Child relationship are as you listed them:
    1. People you see in public places.
    2. people in shul
    3. teachers
    4. relatives and friends and friends’ parents and so on.
    5. Internet use.
    you should add:
    6. doctors

    They pose the greatest dangers often without any signs. The rest of the world is generally harmless.

  3. Oh, boy, this is the hardest conversation ever to have with your children.
    The most obvious danger signs are any kind of touching that makes you feel uncomfortable, questions that seem like they are none of the person's business, showing the child inappropriate pictures, pressuring the child to go somewhere or do something that they don't want to do.
    I started this conversation with my son when he was about 9 years old, and I will never forget the look of horror on his face when I said "I know this may sound strange, but there are some men in this world who like to touch little boys." I felt nauseous just saying it, but it had to be said.
    Good luck to you as you tackle this most difficult subject.

  4. My approach to this has been mostly through the 'secrets' rule. If a secret will make me happy when I find out, you can keep it. If I will be upset, tell me NOW. My example for this is that when my grandmother was 2 , she 'told' on her older brother for playing with matches, and saved their house from burning down.

    As for the who to trust or who not to, they usually say who they are with, and we do actually check out people if we don't know them. If their story or situation doesn't make sense, i voice those concerns. Adults who try to get a kid alone are very suspect. I also tell them that adults who start conversations with kids are to be view with suspicion, until proven otherwise.

    On the Internet,no communication with people you don't already know in person, for elementary school kids. In high school, no last name,no identifying details, no tags on Facebook. (I prefer no facebook, except that after they leave home, it's the best way to know what's going on with them.)

    My 'safe stranger' rule is that if they are lost or otherwise in need of help, they should approach someone pushing a stroller. I think parents and nannies are safest people to ask, and better they should choose someone to ask, than look pathetic and have someone approach them.

    It's hard to make these rules make sense, but it's like fire safety or first aid, you can't wait until you need it to learn about it.

  5. I mentioned this posting to a friend and she added the following. Her family has the "closed/locked door" rule. If an adult puts you in a room with no one else present and closes or locks the door, leave immediately. Even if this is the principal of your school or a teacher in your school or a doctor, open the door wide.

  6. I have mixed feelings about this. I don't want my kids to feel suspicious, around strangers. Obviously they should maintain distance, shyness should not be discouraged.

    I think "anyone who touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable" or "any person or situation that makes you feel uncomfortable" pretty much covers everything else. I don't think kids with strong, involved parents are at risk to the same degree and if your kids have reasonable self-confidence and common sense, they are unlikely to be a victim (someone could start up with them but they wouldn't get far). And if they don't, all the talking won't necessarily help.

    But if you want rules I would add, "anyone who breaks the rules/halacha and says they don't apply to him."

  7. ProfK, Superraizy, Laya-
    Thanks for taking the time; these thoughts are helpful!

    Anonymous 10:54 PM-
    True, but isn't there a circle of trusted friendship beyond Parent/Child?

  8. I seem to remember either reading about a study or seeing something about it on TV about how the Stranger Talk doesn't work. You can get kids to parrot the talk and even respond correctly to hypothetical questions but when left alone the kids still will talk to strangers, help them find conveniently lost pets, etc. They aren't being purposely disobedient but rather they simply cannot integrate the lessons into real life. As child psychologists like to say, children are not little adults.

    Maybe someone can point to actual studies that show whether such talks work? I have been unable to find any scientific articles on the subject either way.

  9. Marc, my friend saw a report about kids who were taught in school, over a long period, about stranger danger. Then they took the kids to the park. An undercover policeman approached kids and asked them to help find his dog. All of the kids agreed.


  10. Marc, MoI-
    Yes, I have heard that. My rebbetzin recommends roleplaying to maximize the possibility that this will become an instinct on which the kids will act, but I agree that we can't rely on this.