Talking about safety with toddlers: Strangers

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Our underlying family foundation over here at Team Studer is kindness.  We choose kindness, we seek out kindness, we believe in kindness in others.  As only preschoolers and toddlers, our kids already have experience in helping 'strangers' through our 12 months of kindness project.  We talk about people using the words, 'our neighbors,' 'the people working hard,' 'our friends.'  We rarely use the actual word 'Stranger,' because we don't want our kids to think everyone is a bad guy - lots of people are kind strangers! 

With all that being said, bottom-line though, we are parents and our top priority is keeping our kids SAFE.  And we can't do that alone, we believe the kids themselves hold a heap of responsibility in their own safety, so it's important for us to frequently talk about safety with people that they don't know (also known as strangers).

The top three things we discuss with the kids about strangers are:
1. Strangers are anyone that you don't know and they look like any regular person.  They could look spooky like the strangers on tv - or they could look beautiful and handsome.  A stranger is anyone that you don't know, even if they seem to know YOU (thanks for that modern technology!)

2. You never go anywhere with ANYONE without asking your parents first.  ever. ever. ever. nowhere with anyone, as in NO ONE - no strangers, no family, no friends.  NO ONE, NOWHERE without asking first.

3. If you get lost or are in trouble, there are safe Strangers that can help you.  These safe strangers include: policemen, firemen, teachers, and Moms that have their kids with them.

These topics are things we talk about frequently and at random to reinforce in their little sponge brains.  We don't want them to be afraid of people they don't know, but we do want them to be aware of themselves and who might be around them.

Many times we find that the strangers we encounter are kind!  They hold doors for us, or help the kids when they fall on the playground, or say 'what a nice family!' And plenty of times, MY friends that the kids have never met or people that know our family through facebook or the blog, will approach us and use the kids' names to talk to them and seem to know plenty about them from pictures and stories - but we still remind the kids that if they don't know the person, that is a stranger to them.  And they never, ever, ever go with anyone without asking their parents first.

I felt pretty confident that after much discussion that they understood.  We should be good.  They get it.  And then I watched this video: 

Immediately I said (I think I actually gasped it aloud), 'Gemma would go', no doubt in my mind....maybe even Greyson would go too. That was a scary moment for me to admit that they would go- probably for a few reasons they go - because the Mum was nearby (it felt like a space space), it was with someone who doesn't 'look like a bad guy,' and also - hello:  puppy.

But the video me a new starting point to open up the discussion about it and give the kids an opportunity to practice the scenario together.  I had Greyson (5yrs) watch the video so that he could see what happened while I added commentary throughout (things like, "see this man, he is not really a bad guy but he is a stranger to the kids" and "you see how the kids didn't even check with their momma!")  --I didn't have Gem (3yrs) watch it because the playground and talk of puppies would be total distraction to the actual point of the video.-- 

Afterwards, we talked about what to do when we are in a public place (using specific words:  park, playground, store, lots of people around).  And we decided to role play it to practice ourselves (Mum saying she'd be the stranger) and despite just literally talking about saying no to going anywhere with a stranger- BOTH kids ended up 'walking away' with Stranger Mum. 

So, we went at it again - only this time we gave the kids exact words and reactions we want them to use.  And we practiced again and again.  Over and over again.  We wanted to include things that would trip the kids up - things like saying 'I already asked your Mum and she said it's okay" and mentioning things they'd like to see (puppies, candy, etc)

(this is what we practiced multiple times with both Greyson and Gemma)

Mum announces, "Okay, I'm going to be the stranger now.  So I look nice and friendly but you still don't know me, okay." 
Grey/Gem pretend to be playing
Mum walks up to kid(s)
Mum:  "Hi! How are you, buddy?" 
Grey/Gem:  "Um, good."
Mum:  "I have some of my little puppies with me, they're so cute! You wanna come see them?"
Grey/Gem:  "I have to ask my Mom first"
Mum:  "I already asked her, it's okay, come on" ::hold kid's hand
Grey/Gem:  "No.  I have to ask her myself."
Mum:  "No really, it's alright, it will just be a minute - come on" ::starts walking while holding kid's hand
Grey/Gem:  (yelling to get the attention of anyone nearby) "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

The kids got a chance to be the 'stranger' too while Brandon and I played the part of the kids so we could portray how forceful we want/hope the kids will respond with "I have to ask" my parents.  And we try to practice this on random every few weeks/months to keep it refreshed in their minds.

We talk about how if someone ever tries to take you somewhere and you say "I have to ask my Mom first" and then the person says, "Nevermind" and walks away - you STILL come tell us because we can protect other kids too!  A stranger is someone you don't know, and if they are a kind stranger, they'll want to talk to and meet your parents.  You don't make friends with a stranger that doesn't want to talk to your parents.

(sidenote:  just practiced again yesterday with Gemma and she went with Stranger Mum first try out of the gate no questions asked while Grey was like, "Gem!  Don't go!!"  This is why its' important to keep practicing and talking about it frequently.)

So we continue to role play, talk about, and remind in situations when they come up in real life (like when Grey went to a different part of the playground with his older cousins without telling me recently and I had no idea where he had gone).  

I'm definitely not claiming to know everything about stranger safety, but I wanted to highlight the ways that we are being intentional at giving our kids experience and confidence in responding to potentially dangerous scenarios - without making the whole world  and all people feel scary.  We don't want them to be afraid, we want them to be aware and have tools to help them be confident and safe.

Coming up soon in my Safety series:
Red Flag feelings
Sibling accountability
Self Awareness

I'd love to hear about how you and your kids talk about strangers?  What tips and info can you share to keep ALL of our kids safe?


  1. We have our kids wear ID bracelets so that if they get lost, someone can contact us. Logan had to use his summer before last, and I was so grateful he had it, and that we'd had conversations about who is safe to approach if lost-- Moms with kids (best!), workers (if at a store), police & firefighters.
    We also tell them they need to stay where we can see them. It's so hard to balance teaching them about safety with not making them scared of the world!!!

  2. Thank you for this post! I've had some Mom-anxiety now that Shayna is getting older and has never exhibited even a little bit of stranger anxiety. She loves everyone and wants to talk to everyone! We don't want to scare her and we don't want to squash her outgoing, awesome personality- so it's a struggle to find the balance.