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.