When I was a child, one of my deepest fears was encountering a dangerous stranger in the park who would offer me sweets or ask me to help search for a lost puppy.
As a child growing up in the 1980s, I was well versed in ‘stranger danger’, thanks to Charley – remember him? Back then, I thought child abductors lurked round every corner and every well-meaning dog walker who smiled at me or little old lady who offered me a jelly baby might be the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in disguise. Despite my young age, I was acutely aware bad things happened in real life and not just in films.
I grew up in Leeds, not far from where the Yorkshire Ripper claimed one of his victims. And yet, as a child I still played out without my parents. Now I am a parent myself, I am faced with a dilemma. Do I terrify my own children about strangers? As an adult, I now know the uncomfortable truth. That children are far more likely to be hurt by people they know and trust and simply never talking to strangers isn’t always enough to keep them safe.
There is also a sense of confusion and hypocrisy about the ‘never talk to strangers’ message. How can I tell my six-year-old to never speak to someone she doesn’t know and then tell her off when she doesn’t say thank you to the shop assistant or answer the nice little old woman in the supermarket who compliments her on her outfit and asks her how old she is? And what if she gets lost in a shop or at the park? Would making her think all strangers are dangerous leave her paralysed in fear when she actually needs one to help her?
I don’t let my children play out without me yet. But that is more about traffic than strangers. I worry they aren’t sensible enough to keep themselves out of danger. Of course, any parent has a deep-rooted terror one day the scary stranger from their nightmares might walk down the street or hang around the local playground. So what should we tell our children?
As with most elements of parenting, the stranger danger issue is a minefield. You can’t come up with solutions for every scenario. All you can do is teach your child to make sensible choices and never be persuaded to do something which makes them feel worried or uncomfortable.