Friday, 10 October 2008

Stranger danger

My daughter is seven, and a pretty 'young' seven at that. She's less into cellphones and independence than pink things and unicorns; and at this stage of her life, her idea of a good time is hanging out with her parents and baby brother. So stranger danger isn't an issue I've had to broach with her just yet.

But the day must arrive when M is no longer happy being under the constant surveillance of a parent, and will want to spend time with her friends or alone, outside the home. And when that time comes, I'm going to have to shatter her illusions about human nature. Right now, M has a pretty sanguine view of the world. Grown ups are kind things to be trusted. They hug you when you're crying and read you stories and put a sticky plaster on you if you've hurt your knee. M sees the good in people, and I'd kind of like her to stay that way. She's tremendously sensitive, and when she sees unpleasant things - people injured on the news, for example - she gets quite upset. Her empathy is, I think, a wonderful quality.

How to tell your child that there are nasty people out there? When M was at preschool, the local Police came visiting as part of their programme teaching kids about stranger danger. They sent M home with some resources for parents (you can see some of this info on the 'How to protect children from paedophiles' section of the Police website: A lot of this info simply gave me the willies. For example, it was advised that parents encourage children to dry their own bodies after the bath, particularly their genitals. The implication seemed to be that an adult (or, more specifically, male) that offers to help a child with bodily care might be suspicious. This view is surely a double-edged sword: it's hard to get men more interested in helping with childcare or entering teaching when men caring for children are viewed as potentially pervy.

Part of the reason this info rubbed me the wrong way was that Rickards, Schollum and Shipton were being tried at the time the Police visited my daughter's preschool. It didn't seem an opportune moment for the boys in blue to be advising anyone about appropriate sexual conduct. And safety information of this downplays the fact that the home is often a more risky place for children than the world beyond it.

I truly don't know what the effects of warning kids about stranger danger are. I grew up in a rural community, and it just wasn't as issue - I was about as naive and trusting as a kid can be, to the extent that I hopped into the cars of strangers who offered me a lift (female strangers, at least). However, a workmate once told me that the warnings she received as a kid scared the bejesus out of her. In her words, she became afraid of men around her, even the men at her church - she thought they were all poised to 'touch her fanny'.

If my daughter had some sort of crisis in her little life - if, for example, she became separated from me in a crowded place - I would want her to approach an adult for help, not be afraid. People are more good than bad. Statistically, M is more likely approach someone friendly than someone harmful. But small kids don't deal in statistical probabilities or nuances. When you warn a kid about the danger of traffic, you don't say, 'You shouldn't cross the road alone unless you really need to and you've looked both ways and there's no one older to do it for you'. You simply say, plainly and clearly, 'Don't go onto the road'. You have to pitch the advice to the child's developmental level, and complex cautions about when you can and can't trust adults don't work well for very little kids.

A kindhearted elderly Chinese man lived near my niece's primary school, and he used to offer the kids lollies when they came out at the end of the day. He was trying to be nice, and was probably a bit lonely. Of course, the teachers advised the children not to take lollies from the man. They tried to explain to the man why he couldn't give treats to the kids, but because English was his second language, he didn't entirely understand and was hurt at being turned away. This sort of situation is a sad side-effect of the mistrust we cultivate in our kids for their own safety. On one hand, we (or at least, I) want our kids to be socially connected, and to care about the feelings of others. On the other, no one wants to take that miniscule but terrible risk that the man offering your child lollies is Jules Mikus.

I can avoid having the stranger danger conversation with M a little longer, simply by keeping a watchful eye over what she does and where she goes. When I eventually warn her about the bad people out there, and how she can avoid them, she'll be a little wiser and safer. But I have a nagging feeling that, by doing so, I'll be in some small way contributing to the problem of a non-empathetic society, not helping to fix it.


The ex-expat said...

This stranger-danger is a very western worry. One of the things I love about Asia is that there isn't this angst over stranger danger. The general attitude is that a stranger isn't so much a danger, but a babysitter you haven't met.

People would quite happily foist their babies into my arms if they needed help (sometimes that 'help' was having a picture of their child with a white person).

Now the argument would be that as a woman they probably felt safe doing so, however my dad spent a few minutes happily looking after a toddler on the train in China while her mum went off to order some food. That's not to say that child abuse and kidnapping aren't issues there, but it didn't seem to have produced the same level of fear.

I understand why there is a very real fear that mothers have of their children experiencing sexual abuse and that they need to do all they can to ensure they keep their children safe. But at the same time I can't help feel that this 'stranger danger anxiety' is a case of that protection instinct gone into overdrive care of the sensationalist coverage of these cases.

I'm not sure of the figures but it would be interesting to see if child sex abuse is similar to rape, in that the victim knows their attacker. I suspect it would be given that children have far more limited amounts of unsupervised time than adults.

Hugh said...

it's hard to get men more interested in helping with childcare or entering teaching when men caring for children are viewed as potentially pervy.


I remember when I lived in the UK a friend and I were waiting outside a local primary school to meet a friend of his who was a (female) teacher there. I've got to confess I've never been big on kids, but my friend rather enjoys being around them and was obviously feeling quite energised by sitting around talking to me while kids walked past, playing, talking and doing the things kids do.

After about 15 minutes a rather burly fellow (I think he was a school janitor) came out and asked us rather brusquely to leave. When asked why he strongly implied that it wasn't appropriate for unaccompanied men to be hanging around outside a school.

Needless to say we both felt extremely put out. I was prepared to argue the point - we weren't on school property, after all - but my friend deferred, and so I took my lead from him and left. It was a very uncomfortable experience.

Men may be more likely than women to abuse children, but it's almost entirely in a familial situation. People focus on the figure of the roving paedophile-stranger because it prevents them from having to ask serious questions about power dynamics within 'ordinary' families and allows them to instead occupy themselves with coping strategies that come out of Charles Bronson movies.

lauredhel said...

There are plenty of protective behaviours that a child can learn well before the age of seven without inciting terror of strangers - protective behaviours that will stand them in good stead if there are predators known to them, as well, which is more likely.

"Your body is yours", "you have the right to feel safe", and "no means no" are a good start, IMO, along with "You can always tell me, no matter what, and I will believe you."

Our getting-lost protocol (my son is six) involves "Stay still and wait for a little while; call my name. If I don't find you quickly, ask a worker in uniform, or a mummy". We also try to make sure that some item on him has my mobile phone number (it's on our standard vinyl name labels).

We've talked very candidly and matter-of-factly, in age-appropriate terminology, about the fact that some people might have bad things in mind, even people we know, and we've talked over what to do if someone invites him to go somewhere with them to see a toy or a puppy or get lollies.

We've talked, again quite candidly, about who can touch him "under his underwear" (mum, dad, doctor or nurse with mum/dad there, all of the above only with his permission); it doesn't seem to have undermined my son's confidence or happiness one bit. He cheerfully strikes up conversations with strangers all over the place. No nightmares or any other sign of dwelling on the issue at all.

I don't approach this really much differently from teaching about road safety or safety around fires, in terms of the language and tone used.

Anonymous said...

I'm a man, who taught English in a kindergarten overseas for almost 4 years, with no problem at all, I loved the job. I also taught primary age kids in after-school classes too.

When I came back to NZ I applied for various ECE positions, but was unsuccessful. The impression I got in the interviews was that although the schools liked the "idea" of having a male teacher, underneath it all they were really thinking "this is going to be new and difficult, and will disrupt our cosy girls club".

I also decided that I really didn't want a job where I would have the spend the whole time "being careful" or "watching over my shoulder" and "not giving the wrong impression". The paranoia quotent was too high I'm afraid.

Julie said...

Anon, you might want to check this out:

I have quite a bit to do with ECE in my day job, so I avoid commenting on it here. In general I have found women teaching in ECE already to be quite friendly to men entering the profession (some brag about it to others when they have a man teaching in their centre!) but there are definitely a lot of barriers out there, not least as a result of the Peter Ellis case. You might want to get in touch with some of the men involved with EC MeNZ, I know two of the guys in Auckland and they are great.