Here’s a tricky one for you…
How do you teach your child stranger danger while simultaneously respecting people in authority?
A few weeks ago my toddler and I left a cafe and he was grabbed, pulled back and picked up by a stranger in uniform.
It was meant to be affectionate, but it wasn’t.
My son’s stress response kicked in. He froze.
I saw red but knowing that my reaction would have a profound impact on my son, I calmly and firmly removed the man’s hands off my son and said in half Sinhalese/ English “no thank you, you scare”.
Outside I was calm, inside I was raging. RAGING!
I mentally punched the officer in the face and kicked him in the balls. Not sure why the kick in the balls seemed relevant, it’s probably because of the Stranger Danger messages that were ingrained in me as an 80’s child.
I walked away with my son in my arms with feelings of anger that this had happened.
He was a policeman.
But he scared my boy.
My not even three year old boy.
Policemen are not allowed to be scary, they are supposed to be protect us from scary things.
I was angry because it wasn’t that long ago I’d told my son that he needed to listen to the adults in his life as they are there to protect him and keep him safe, and these adults included Policemen.
We did some age-appropriate Circles of Safety work where you talk to your children about important people in their life – Mummy, Daddy in the first circle, nanny and poppy in the next, close friends in the next. Policemen, teachers and other significant people are also included. All the people we identify keep us safe.
But not all adults are made equal are they?
I mean, not all adults keep children safe.
That night in bed, I said to my son (we always have little chats before bed), “I know I told you that you need to listen to adults at all times, but if at any time you feel scared of someone or if they do something that you don’t like, like how that man picked you up today, you are allowed to scream ‘NO, NO, NO’ as loud as you can.”
He lay there and thought about it for a moment.
I gave him all the time he needed to process what I said.
After ten seconds he said, “No man like.”
“Hmm, he was wrong to grab you up like that, wasn’t he?” was my reply.
“Yes, me scared.”
“It was scary for you. Mummy was there and I told him he wasn’t allowed to do that. It’s my job as a mummy to keep you safe.
“If you ever feel scared or worried about someone touching you like that or being too close, you are allowed to yell out “no, no, no” or if you want to, you could yell out for me or daddy. Do you think you would be able to do this?”
He nodded and said, “Yes. Yell, Mummy”.
“Okay. So tell me, what was the best part of your day today?”
And we moved on to talking about much more exciting and fun things.
I’ve always thought that I’d raise a child who respected adults’ instructions, particularly people in authority, but this situation made me really question this value.
How does a toddler differentiate between a stranger who they can trust and a stranger they cannot trust? How do they know when to listen or when to scream?
It makes sense to me that listening to people in authority is still a respectful behaviour that my son should learn in his life. Research shows that it is a quality that will help children like him in school, to be safe (most of the time), in social situations and when he becomes an adult.
But stranger danger is equally an important value to learn. It also protects our children. I can remember learning about it as a child, We do not go into stranger’s cars. If we get grabbed we scream as loud as we can, kick for the balls (because apparently only men grab kids), and run to a Safety House.
How hard it is for us parents to teach their children these values when sometimes people in authority cross a line with their authority!
The answer is that both values can work together, but only if we build resilience in our children.
For example, if a child feels uncomfortable being alone with an adult, they should be able to recognise how feelings of uncomfortableness present in their bodies. But before they even enter that situation, we as parents should have already equipped our child with the permission to stand up themselves against an adult in authority, the knowledge that they won’t be in trouble for standing up against an adult in authority, the skills to get themselves to safety, and the confidence to do what they need to do.
This is what resilience looks like.
This is what emotionally mature children look like.
This is how we can balance two sometimes competing values.
And this is what I want to teach my child.
For those interested, the Safety House program became debunked several years ago – at it’s peak in the 80’s it had over 6,000 members but reduced to 500 only three years ago.