This article from the Child Rescue Network points out some of the problems with the “Stranger Danger” message. And has some better ideas of how to make children safer:
We must teach our kids how to recognize potentially dangerous situations and provide them with specific action plans on how to react if the need arises. We must also stress the critical importance of instilling a since of confidence in our kids and give them an understanding and respect for personal boundaries.
To which I will add: This can and should be done without scaring the hell out of them. The popular mythology of the dangers of sex offenders plays along with the Stranger Danger message to create massive concern about Registered Sex Offenders (RSOs) settling into neighborhoods. It presumes that there are no active unregistered Sex Offenders (SOs) in that same area, and that the RSO is especially dangerous. However, RSOs, having been adjudicated, have the lowest rate of recidivism (reoffense) of any category of criminal. For those wanting to see evidence as to that last sentence, I would suggest looking over this article (downloading the full article) for a very academic approach to the subject.
The truth is that the biggest threat to anyone, especially children, is not some stranger in the bushes with a ski mask. It’s someone you know, like and trust. Because those are the people you will give access to your life and your children, and you are less likely to report when they do something wrong because you like them and don’t think they are bad people, because no ski mask and no bushes. So you’re more likely to blame yourself or your children than you would if this was done by a stranger.
The most extreme example of parental exaggeration of Stranger Danger came while I was cashiering. A customer with her child got to the front of my line, and, as I usually did, I tried to engage the child in a conversation if possible (shopping is incredibly boring for children, and the conversation can help preserve the peace if successful, or the shock of having a big, tall adult paying attention to them can shut down a fit right as it’s getting ready to start). The child didn’t respond, so I tried again, and, again, no response. The parent indicated that her child doesn’t talk to strangers, indicating that that was without regard to context or circumstances, thinking that that made her child safer. Instead, I see a child scared of most of the world around her, because most people in the world are strangers, and none the more safe for all of that fear.
As part of the changes coming, which I wrote about in December, are ideas for a program and a book based on the model of the site here. I’m cooking up some slogans for that model. One I like that’s making sense for me is: No bad guys. No monsters. No angels. Thoughts?
You’ll recognize this one quite quickly, I suspect. This is the one where the abuser is always horrible, always abusive, and probably ugly, while the victim is some angelic being incapable of ever doing anything wrong, and as innocent as the wind-driven snow. This comes from the over-extension of some true principles — abuse is ugly and horrible, and those who are abused aren’t responsible for their own abuse. But the way the myth works out is that one subscribing to it can talk about how much they hate abusers while giving free passes to many abusers because they don’t fit up to the stereotype. A couple of examples of where this can go astray is the case of noted film director Roman Polanski, whose sexual assault of a teen-aged girl was described by comedien Whoopi Goldberg as “not rape-rape,” or the recent under-sentencing of a child molester because the judge thought the case didn’t fit the profile of a molester. Real molesters, like all abusers, are human beings. They aren’t monstrous — the abuse they commit is monstrous. People we know and like commit abuse, as do some of us. Too many of us.
But what about the Immaculate Victim? Avoiding victim-blaming is a good thing, but the problem with this one is that if the one who was abused can be shown to not be perfect, then they aren’t really worthy of sympathy, and their abuse can be ignored. Sometimes, abused people make bad choices, including, sometimes, being violent in response to violence perpetrated against them: fighting back. I don’t advocate fighting back, as retaliatory violence is still voluntary violence that isn’t self-defense, which I see as a bad thing in all cases. But being in an ugly situation can prompt the best of us to make bad decisions, and those who have been abused need our support and help, not our judgment and condemnation.
The purpose of these myths is that they enable us to ignore abuse that we see. What we want to do is to not have to see it, because it is ugly, and if we see it, we might need to do something about it. Doing something about it is the better choice, because that’s the only way we change things. And the first thing we need to do about it is to be clear with ourselves about what we are seeing, and that it is abusive (when it is). After that, we can refuse to collude with the denial system that those involved may be caught up in, and support them in making good choices to break out of the abuse and into healthier abuse-free lives.