Forget "Stranger Danger" — Here's What We Should Really Teach Kids To Keep Them Safe

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Growing up, your parents likely told you not to talk to strangers and to be wary of people you don’t know who might try to lure you away and harm you — also known as “stranger danger.”

These days, however, top child safety experts are more likely to recommend teaching the concept of “tricky people” instead — and for good reason.

It’s a term coined by child safety expert Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of She defines a tricky person as someone who “tricks” a kid or a parent into believing they’re a safe person when, in reality, they are not. They might ask a child (rather than another adult) for help, tell a kid to keep a secret from their parents, try to arrange alone time with them (like special outings that don’t include a parent), touch their body excessively and/or inappropriately, or invade their personal space.

“A tricky person who intends to target a child often uses ‘grooming tricks’ to gain access and/or privacy with a child. This means gaining the trust of the child or the parent, until personal boundaries become blurry and lines are crossed,” Fitzgerald, author of “Super Duper Safety School,” told HuffPost.

One reason to use the term tricky people? It’s more accurate. Consider the fact that more than 90% of reported child sexual abuse cases happen at the hands of people the child knows — not strangers — according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Child abductions by strangers are very rare; most abductions are committed by a family member or acquaintance (though stranger abductions do usually pose more of a threat to the child’s safety).

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“If we are only teaching kids about ‘stranger danger,’ then we are missing a much larger and more important issue that needs to be addressed,” said Fitzgerald.

We need to make it clear that it’s not just people they don’t know who might be unsafe. Adults they do know — a relative, a coach, a neighbor, a family friend  — can be tricky people, too.

What’s more, kids often expect strangers to appear scary or dangerous. But folks who are looking to harm children may actually come across as quite friendly or charming.

“The other problem with ‘stranger danger’ is that even when there is an inappropriate stranger seeking out a child — particularly in a public place — that person will not seem scary or threatening to your child, but rather outgoing, fun or interesting,” Fitzgerald said. “It is easy to get tricked when that stranger offers a treat, a toy, a puppy or something else that would grab a child’s attention.”

The “tricky people” concept puts more focus on strange behavior than it does on fearing strangers altogether.

“Listen to your instincts and remember it’s not what someone looks like that tells you if they are tricky. It’s how they act, behave or seek out your child,” Fitzgerald said.  

How To Teach Kids About Safety And Tricky People 

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Rather than trying to instill fear in your child with scary stories, take a “loving, nurturing” approach, Fitzgerald advised.

“Use empowering words and phrases like ‘boss of your body’ or ’boss of your own touches,’ thumbs up and thumbs down behavior in other people, listening to their ‘uh-oh feeling’ when their heart or their brain tells them something doesn’t seem quite right,” she said.

This kind of language gives your child more agency. Fitzgerald also recommends teaching kids about what to do rather than only teaching them what not to do.

This “gives them a proactive response in case something doesn’t seem right to them,” she said.

A teenage boy with a backpack talks to a man driving a car through the open passenger window
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When you’re in public, teach your child that they need to check in with you “before running off with someone else to see or do something new,” Fitzgerald said. “Even if it’s the ice cream man.”

You can start having these kinds of discussions with toddler-aged children, said child psychologist Cindy T. Graham, and build on them over time.

“This would be a very simplified version early on and as the child gets older, the choice of wording will mature as appropriate,” Graham, founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center, told HuffPost. “These conversations can then naturally evolve to include topics on consenting to sexual behaviors as the child matures.”

It’s also important to use the anatomically correct terms for body parts when talking to your kids. This will help your child communicate clearly if they are ever touched inappropriately.

“Let your child know that no one else should try to ‘share those private parts’ with them — not our friends, relatives, or other people we know and like,” Fitzgerald said. “Teach kids they have permission to say ‘stop touching me’ to anyone and to let you know all about it as soon as they can so you can help.”

Another important point to stress: Tell your kids that we do not keep secrets from parents (or other trusted caregivers), “especially if it’s about a secret touch or a secret gift,” Fitzgerald said.

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You can also explain the difference between a secret and a surprise.

“Grandma giving you an extra cookie isn’t a secret,” Kate Schweitzer wrote for Chicago Parent. “Nor is not telling Daddy what his birthday present is going to be. Those are surprises. Teach your kids the difference and remind them that they never keep secrets from their parents.”

You might also want to spell out problematic behaviors for kids to be aware of.

“A helpful approach can begin with, ‘It is not OK for anyone to...’ then discussing the inappropriate behaviors in a developmentally appropriate way,” Graham said. “Then go on to clarify, ‘This includes friends, family, neighbors, classmates, teachers, strangers, anyone.’”

When having these conversations, be comfortable and confident in your delivery. That will help kids know there’s no shame in talking about these topics, Graham said. There are books that can help adults better navigate these conversations; pediatricians are also trained to have these talks with children, Graham noted.

“Parents or adults who have a history of trauma may benefit from seeking help from a psychologist to help them work through triggers that may arise from having these discussions with their children,” she added.

Fitzgerald’s best piece of advice for parents? Pay attention to who is paying attention to your kid.

“Monitor the types of relationships others have established with your child, and listen to your instinct,” she said. “If someone is too good to be true, ask yourself: Does this really make sense?”  This article originally appeared on HuffPost.