We tend to think nothing of our kids making friends with other children on the playground. In fact, watching two 5-year-olds become instant best friends is probably one of the cutest things to watch. However, watching your child walk confidently up to a strange adult? Maybe not so cute – in fact, it can be quite agitating.
“Social skills and independence blossom at ages 4 and 5,” says Charles Shubin, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. “Even a kid who used to hide behind your leg six months ago may now feel comfortable engaging anybody and everybody she meets.”
So, if your kid is this age or near it, you might want to seriously consider talking to them about safety. The question is, how do you go about that exactly? You want your child to understand that it’s a serious matter, but, at the same time, you don’t walk them to be too frightened to talk to anyone.
Setting some basic rules is a great idea, and we’re here to help by making coming up with them and wording them a little easier.
Stranger Safety Tips for Parents
- “Ask your mom, dad, or babysitter before talking to any other grown-ups.”
We tend to just say, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but this can be frightening and, at times, confusing.
“The concept of a stranger can be hard for a young child to grasp,” says Nancy McBride, safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia.
For instance, your kid may see the clerk at the bank more often than he sees his aunt who lives across the country.” Who knows how your child has interpreted what you’ve said? Your best bet is to keep it simple and have them check in with you before talking with or going off with any other adults.
Maybe you could even have a system where they look at you and you either nod or shake your head! Whatever works for your child in an understandable way.
- “If you get lost in a store, stay inside the building and look for someone wearing a name tag to help you.”
Don’t just tell them to ask a trusted adult to help you. First of all, how is your young child to know who is considered trustworthy or who isn’t? Most scared children will begin looking for their parent outside the store, says Joselle Shea, director of children and youth initiatives at the National Crime Prevention Council, in Arlington, Virginia, so be sure they know that leaving the building is out of the question.
If you want, you could even try practicing by making it into a game. The next time you go out with your child, have them count how many nametags they can spot. Note to your child that they’ll typically find nametags on workers by the cash registers.
If you really want to be thorough, have your child learn his first and last name as well as yours and your spouses and your phone number. “Most kids can begin learning these facts at age 4 and master them by age 5,” says Shea.
- “Don’t accept anything from anyone besides your parents, babysitter, teacher, or friend’s parents while on a playdate.”
“Kids this age are very literal,” says Dr. Shubin. “So, when you warn them not to accept candy, they’re not likely to interpret it to also mean that they shouldn’t take a balloon or crayons.” The typical phrase is to just say, “Don’t take candy from a stranger,” but you really need to go a step further than this.
You can even practice with your child by role-playing different scenarios. Even if it’s a quick, “No thanks,” push a little further to ensure your child holds firm and doesn’t give in.
- “Don’t go anywhere where you can no longer see me.”
“When you ask some children who wandered off from their parents why they strayed away, they’ll tell you they thought their parents could still see them,” says Michelle Lubahn, health and wellness coordinator for Children’s Hospital of Orange County, in Orange, California. Something a little more specific than “Don’t leave my sight” is necessary here.
“If you’re at the park, for example, you may tell them ‘You can play on the swings and slides here. But if you want to go elsewhere, tell me and I’ll come with you,'” says Lubahn.
- “A surprise is the only secret that’s okay to keep.”
Using the words secret and surprise interchangeably is confusing for a child, especially if you tell them the gift you bought for Daddy is a secret while at the same time holding a rule that they are to keep no secrets from Daddy and Mommy. You want it to be clear at such a young age that you as parents should know anything that anyone says or does to your child.
Stranger Safety Tips for Kids at Every Age
What to Teach Kids 4 Years and Under
- Their first and last name
- Your full name.
- Don’t go anywhere with, accept anything from, or get into a car with anyone
What to Teach Kids 5-7 Years Old
- Your cell-phone number.
- A “safe list.” Rather than saying, “Don’t talk to strangers,” list a few people who are always okay for your child to speak with.
What to Teach Kids 8 Years and Older
- A meeting place they can find if you get separated.
- Bringing a friend or a sibling along to places (like a restroom) your child is starting to visit independently.
- Never approach a car, and be cautious of adults asking for help. If anyone tries to make your child go somewhere, he or she should know to yell loudly.