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: http://www.police.govt.nz/safety/home.childprotection.html). 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.