Amanda is lost.  She lost sight of her mom when she saw a toy in the window that she wanted, and now she’s alone, scared, and 4 years old.  What should she do?

Obviously, she should talk to a stranger.  This might sound surprising and not at all obvious to those of us who’ve had decades of “don’t talk to strangers” and “stranger danger” drilled into us, but it’s absolutely true – the best thing in the world for Amanda to do is get an adult to help her: a police officer, a teacher, someone who works at the store or the mall, or a mother or father with children of their own.  And experts agree: in recent years, the inflexible advice of “stranger danger” has been giving way to trying to teach children to use their judgment

All the people just mentioned are good strangers: people we should teach children to seek out when they’re lost, scared, or in need of help.  Learning to recognize good strangers will make children safer, and help them develop their own judgment.  So how can we teach them the difference?

First, let’s list some good strangers:

  • Police Officers
  • Fire Fighters
  • Teachers
  • A librarian
  • Store Employees
  • A mother or father with small children

What do they have in common? For the most part, they are easily identifiable: they wear uniforms or nametags, they are found in specific, recognizable contexts, and they are authority figures children are likely to easily recognize.  Finding a woman or man with small children is the outlier, but still easily recognizable, and still an authority figure a child should have no problem identifying.

You can even practice – point out good strangers with your child whenever you’re in public together, and challenge them to keep an eye out to find some good strangers of their own.

Many of us will be nervous teaching children to talk to strangers.  That “stranger danger” reflex runs deep, and teaching children to use their best judgment is terrifying to anyone familiar with how terrible children’s judgment can be.  But there are things we can do to help children develop their judgment, which makes them safer than just avoiding strangers ever could..

As for Amanda, everything worked out fine.  She saw a woman with a nametag in the toy store, and just like she’d practiced with her mom, told the woman her name, her mom’s name, and that she was lost and scared.  Right now, she’s been reunited with her mother, and they’re sharing an ice-cream cone to celebrate.

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