The New Way Millennial Parents Are Teaching Their Kids About 'Stranger Danger'


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I could have been one of the Stranger Things kids. I grew up before the Internet exploded, at a time in history when we played outside -- unsupervised, without putting our parents at risk of arrest -- for hours, rode our bikes beyond our neighborhoods, and couldn't check in via text or social media. It was an era in which in-real-life "stranger danger" was one of the primary safety concerns for many parents of independent children. I remember learning never to talk to strangers, accept anything from them, or be tempted to follow them away from my home, yard, or school.

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For many parents in 2018, this kind of fear is still very real: 25 percent of parents worry that someone will hurt or attack their child, and 14 percent are afraid of kidnapping and abduction. However, the current reality is that kids are more likely to be harmed by people they know than by strangers. In 2016, just 1 percent of the missing child cases handled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were classified as non-family abductions -- by comparison, 6 percent of missing children were abducted by family members. Statistics also show that a staggering 90 percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser. Approximately 30 percent are abused by a family member, and 60 percent by someone their family knows and trusts.

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Funda Yilmaz, a licensed professional counselor and founder of the NeuroFit Global provider network, cautions that focusing too much on stranger danger can discourage children from seeking help when someone they know is threatening them and can also lead parents to leave their kids with untrustworthy friends and family members.

For millennial parents navigating this fear in both the physical and digital world, safety is about empowering kids to trust their instincts about when situations and people -- strangers or not -- are threatening. It's about creating space for their children to be independent and solve problems on their own. It's about encouraging open and honest conversations about safety and giving kids the words to express what makes them uncomfortable. Instead of painting strangers versus friends as a black-and-white issue, parents today are skipping the "stranger danger" rhetoric and teaching their kids to pay attention to how certain people and places make them feel.

Jason Levine's fourth grader walks six blocks from her home to her school in Washington, DC. She knows neighbors along her route, meets up with two friends halfway, and texts a selfie to her parents once she arrives. Levine says this builds her confidence in knowing what's safe and what's not.

"She is learning how to be independent and problem solve without adults in a safe environment where she is familiar enough to have options if she feels unsafe -- places she knows she can go, people she knows she can find," Levine says.

Parents are also encouraging their kids to meet other adults on their own terms. Chelsi Crossley says that although they are always polite to strangers, it's important for her 3-year-old son to know that he doesn't have to talk to, hug, or otherwise interact with anyone, family or stranger, if he doesn't want to -- and that she will always support his autonomy. Many parents say their kids are able to do their own "gut check" and intuitively understand what's comfortable and safe at any given time.

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Another reason millennial parents are ditching the strict stranger danger rhetoric: In some situations, strangers can provide a safe haven for kids who are lost, scared, or need help. For example, children can generally seek protection in restaurants, in public buildings with flagpoles -- post offices, libraries, and schools -- and with people in uniform like police officers and firefighters. Security experts say that instead of teaching children that strangers are dangerous and familiar faces are not, parents should help kids recognize when and where to ask for help.

"A frequent conversation I have with my children includes an understanding that there are some people who may want to gain their trust and friendship for the wrong reasons," says Paul Grattan, a police officer, law enforcement writer, and father of three. "Frightening your kids is seldom useful, but teaching them to be more broadly aware of the various motivations people have in the world is an important life lesson that's worth reinforcing as they grow."

Finally, millennial parents have an added challenge -- kids and teens today meet new people in both the real and virtual worlds. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of all teens have made one or more friends online, and 20 percent have met at least one online friend in person. The anonymity of the Internet means there's always a risk that people are not who they claim to be, and kids may encounter predators posing as kids of a similar age, celebrities, or other "trustworthy" figures. While research suggests that unwanted solicitation and attempts by adults to pose as kids may be on the decline, parents have an opportunity to help their kids safely navigate the Internet.

Elizabeth Jeglic, a clinical psychologist and mother of three, echoes Grattan's idea that it's okay to tell kids that some people they meet on the Internet may befriend them for the wrong reasons and that they can be on the lookout for certain types of behaviors and interactions when online.

"Many of the ones who are trying to solicit children for nefarious purposes will try to engage the child in sexual conversation, ask them to send sexy pictures of themselves, broach the topic of meeting in person, and ask about parental supervision," she says.

Jeglic also offers a few basic rules for digital security -- no matter what kids are doing online. For example, children should never use identifying information or suggestive usernames, nor should they share their picture, school, phone number, or address. She recommends parents know the passwords for all devices and social media accounts and keep computers, phones, and tablets in common areas of the home at night.

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