Jul 28, 2014
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Raising Needham: The Realities of Stranger Danger

When is the right time to teach kids about stranger danger, and how much do they need to know?

Raising Needham: The Realities of Stranger Danger

I pride myself in being a very well informed and in touch parent. But, just as my daughter’s first sleepover request snuck up on me, so did the realities of stranger danger.

I did the basic "stay away from strangers" talk, role-played common abduction scenarios and how to yell "fire" and not "help," reminded them never to leave my side and harped on who is OK to talk to and who isn’t. But when the outside world comes close to home, my talks suddenly seemed inadequate.

My small town is struggling with and debating over what to do when a Level 3 sex offender made his presence known to children hanging out downtown, playing soccer and biking to school. While he has not committed a crime in our town to date (he is from a neighboring town), his overly friendly demeanor with local children has us all scratching our heads. I am not going into the legality of the situation in this article—I will leave that to the lawyers and police officers—but I can speak of the angst it is causing parents like myself.

The parent email groups were ablaze with concern and questions that I found very helpful as the situation unfolded in real time. Parents were concerned, scared and confused, and I wondered when and if I should talk to my young children about this man. Would they even understand what he did? Would they be afraid of all men? And would my explanation effectively end their childhood years of innocence?

An immediate call to my sister-in-law, a child psychologist with a PhD., was in order for some parenting advice. She reassured me that my fears were legit, my teaching tactics reasonable, and she allowed me to vent—which is always nice. She applauded my town’s communication and action to protect the children and reminded me that when it comes to stranger danger, it takes a village. It’s OK to watch out for other children and it is OK to question if an adult should be hanging around. "Act now, apologize later," was her mantra, and that hit home for my daughter, whose biggest concern was “what if I run away from someone who we actually know.” I told her I’d rather she be mistaken and I apologize to my friend later than the alternative.

As we drove to pick up my son, my daughter mentioned that a classmate had asked if she had seen “the bald man” around town.

"What man?" I asked, only to find out that my daughter had overheard me chatting on the phone with a neighbor. Big "oops" moment for me. My daughter pressed me for details and, while I was able to keep it to a first grade level of understanding, I was concerned about how she would process this information.

I quickly found out when she refused to enter my son’s school playground on her own as she normally does because a bald man was leaving the area with his son. I asked her if that was the reason she hadn't gone into the playground ahead of me, and she said, with hesitation, "No." I didn’t believe her.

What I have learned from all of this is that no matter the town you live in or the age of your children, our sometimes scary world can sneak into your home fast. I was comforted with words and the take-charge attitude of other parents and the knowledge that, at least for now, I have control over my kids' whereabouts. Aside from that, I am as scared as the rest of you.       

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