How to teach kids which strangers are the safe ones

CHILD LIFE

September 11, 1994|By BEVERLY MILLS

Q: My 5-year-old son enjoys talking to strangers. He just goes up and starts talking to people. While I don't want to scare him, I know I need to break him of the habit. How should I do this? -- Danielle Jefferson, San Diego, Calif.

A: Sometimes the standby rule, "don't talk to strangers," can backfire. Mark Rahorn, a father from Tempe, Ariz., says he was surprised at the response from his 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter after teaching them to be wary of people they don't know.

"We were walking into a shopping mall, and this guy walking out says 'Good morning,' and I said 'Good morning' back," Mr. Rahorn says. "Immediately my children are asking,'Why are you talking to him?' "

If everyone who intended harm wore an overcoat, hat and sunglasses, stranger education would be easy, says Beth Snyder, who teaches and develops safety programs at Egleston Children's Hospital at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. But because a person with unsavory intentions is likely to approach a child in a friendly way, maybe offering food or a toy, parents must help their children make subtle distinctions.

One mother found that with her gregarious 5-year-old, a simple rule made all the difference.

"We tell him that when you are with Mom or Dad it is OK to say hi to strangers, but when you are by yourself, you don't talk to strangers," says Jan Aquillina of Edina, Min.

As for the fear factor, safety experts agree that giving children information they need to figure out how the world works will not change their personality or outlook on life.

"It actually makes them feel more secure and comfortable," says Carol S. Saunders of Livingston, N.J., author of the new book "Safe at School" (Free Spirit Publishing, $14.95).

If you haven't yet gotten around to the topic of strangers, 5 is the perfect age to start: Their minds are developing to the point that they can begin to understand what you're talking about. Even so, Ms. Saunders says, "Every safety rule needs to be repeated hundreds of times before they finally soak it up."

Most experts agree that children do not have the cognitive skills to deal with strangers, or fully understand the concept, until between the ages of 9 and 11. So "A child of 5 should be supervised 100 percent of the time," Ms. Saunders says.

While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.

CAN YOU HELP?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

* Me, me, me: "My son has just turned 10 years old, and he has become so selfish in the past six months," says K. Hensley of Phoenix, Ariz. "We have always taught our children to think of others and not just themselves. He's a good boy, but this is breaking my heart. Any suggestions?"

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