By Delon Shurtz
Southern Alberta Newspapers
In June 2005, an 11-year-old boy was lost in the Utah wilderness for four days. During that time, he stayed on the trail, but when he saw people searching for him he deliberately hid, afraid someone might “steal” him.
Fortunately he was eventually found, but, according to the Canada Safety Council, the incident shows it may be unwise to instill a fear of strangers in children. The “stranger danger” message can hinder children from developing the social skills and judgment needed to deal effectively with real-life situations, and in a predicament, a stranger could be their lifeline to safety.
When it comes to the relatively low risk of abduction and kidnapping, children are predominantly taken away by people they know.
According to Statistics Canada, most of the children abducted are taken by acquaintances or a family member. That implies children need a sense of who to trust. Wandering off is more common, but a lost child may have to call upon a stranger for help, and must develop the ability to judge what kind of people to approach. The “never talk to strangers” rule does not protect children in the situations they are most likely to face. It can also be confusing.
Adults do not model the behaviour because they often talk to strangers. A child may not know how to define who is a stranger, and who is not. If strangers are dangerous, then they must look unpleasant. On the other hand, a friendly, attractive person must be OK. Even though the opposite may be true, that is how a child’s mind may work.
Recently a few children in Raymond were seen talking to a “stranger,” who, during their interaction, asked for the children’s names.
The children had been taught not to talk to strangers, but this man, they said, was really nice. A woman intervened during the interaction and the children were sent home, but the incident serves as a reminder for parents to talk to their children, again if necessary, about what to do if they are approached by a stranger.
RCMP did not charge the man since he hadn’t broken any laws, but he was taken to the hospital in Lethbridge because of possible mental health issues.
Const. Russell Devin of the Raymond/Magrath RCMP detachment, says the man was only talking to the children and did not try to persuade them to follow him anywhere, but he still advises children to avoid interacting with a stranger if approached.
Devin says a child should walk away and find some friends nearby or go to a familiar neighbour’s home or somewhere they feel safe. Parents, he adds, need to educate their children about how to stay safe, even in a small town such as Raymond where children may be relatively safe. Parents should always know where their young children are and who their friends are.
There is some growing support for using the words “tricky people” instead of strangers when talking to children about their safety, because it focuses on certain behaviours that could serve as warning signs.
The jury may still be out on the new description, however, but it has been touted by educators and other professionals.
Maral Kiani, executive director of the Family Centre in Lethbridge, says children need to be taught to be aware of their surroundings, and ensure they stay in public areas and not go with a stranger into any secluded area or area where there aren’t any other people. And unless it’s an emergency, children should be taught not to give personal information to anyone they don’t know.
The Canada Safety Council also offers several suggestions for what parents can do to protect their children from the real threats and dangers they may face.
For young children, nothing replaces close supervision. Preschoolers do not understand risk and tend to act on impulse.
If children are lost or in danger, they should stay put, or in hazardous conditions, find the nearest safe spot; try to attract attention, and wait for a rescuer.
Once children are in school, have them memorize their name, address and phone number in case they become separated from the family.
When someone makes them feel uncomfortable, even if it’s someone they know, children should be taught to trust their instincts and to seek out an adult in whom they can confide.
If they get lost, they may have to ask for help from a stranger, but if possible it should be from, for example, a uniformed officer, a parent with children, or people working in a store, restaurant or information booth.
Practice “what if” scenarios, such as getting lost in a mall, being approached in a park, being offered a ride with a stranger. Many families use passwords; children ask anyone picking them up for the password.
The Canada Safety Council also encourages parents to give their children age-appropriate positive messages about safety, bearing in mind how youngsters may perceive their world.