Stranger-Danger Message Puts Kids at Risk

The arrest of a man who's confessed to killing 6-year old Etan Patz in 1979 has gotten people abuzz about the dangers of strangers. "Stranger-danger, remember?!" I overheard a mom warn her daughter at the playground on the beach this past weekend. But children are rarely abducted by strangers. In fact, the vast majority is abducted by family members. Likewise, in 90% of all instances of child sexual abuse, the offender knows the child. Nevertheless, the stranger-danger message continues to feed a fear instilled culture. But it does not help protect children. Reports NPR:

Fear doesn't work. Don't simply tell kids to avoid talking to strangers, because they'll encounter lots of them, whether it's bus drivers or parents of other children. Teach them how to interact with strangers — and also when to feel wary around people they already know. Trying to supervise kids constantly may be less effective than teaching them how to look out for themselves.


Teaching children to stand up for themselves around those they know and don't know, including by kicking and screaming — "A generation ago, law enforcement told children to follow orders from threatening adults. Today, their advice is to raise a fuss to avoid getting in a car." — involves empowering children to be attuned to what feels right or not to them physically and emotionally. Children who are informed about their bodies are better equipped to maintain healthy boundaries.

Keep lines of communication open. If children say they're uncomfortable around an adult or teenager, take them seriously. And, even if it's uncomfortable, teach your children about sex and private parts. "Kids who know the names of body parts are less likely to be victimized," says Patty Wetterling of the Minnesota Department of Health. "It's what you don't talk about that scares kids the most."


Positive information about sex helps keep children safe from abuse. It empowers them to determine what feels right to them and what feels wrong. And to report wrong behavior. Notes Patricia C. Wass, a Sexual Assault Crisis Services Coordinator:

In the majority of cases, children never tell anyone what has happened to them. Why? Because it doesn’t feel safe to tell. Talking about sex at all is taboo in many families; if a child can’t talk about healthy sexuality and normal bodily functions comfortably, how can a little girl or boy ever tell someone about sexual abuse? If parents get hysterical when they find their children touching themselves or exploring each others’ bodies out of normal curiosity, how will they react if their child tells them that Uncle Fred or Grampa or Mr. Smith next door has touched them inappropriately – or worse? Children pick up very subtle cues from their parents; if sex is never talked about, or if parents have reacted disapprovingly to any mention of sex or sexualized behavior in their children, then children will be very reluctant to tell if they’ve been abused.


A child deserves to be supported in figuring out what kinds of touch feel right to her and which feel wrong. But the stranger-danger myth that cast offenders as "these monsters, people who rape, murder and abduct strangers" can prohibit children from recognizing and naming wrong touch. Explains Joan Tabachnick, author of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s guide:

So if the abuser is somebody you care about and respect, there’s a cognitive dissonance: “Can they really be doing this monstrous thing when they’re not a monster?” When I did some interviews with offenders in prison, I remember one minister saying that even when he was sexually abusing a child, he asked the child, “Is this good touch or bad touch?” and the child said, “Because it’s you and you’re a good man, it must be good touch.” ...  Because we have moved more and more toward monsterizing the offender, it’s actually limiting our ability to prevent child sexual abuse. The more we make sex offenders into monsters, the less likely we are able to see behaviors in people we love that give us concern.


Images and stories of Pedro Hernandez who was arrested before the weekend for killing Etan Patz after luring him into a basement with the promise of a soda are currently flooding the media. Let that not cloud the real truth of who most offenders are and how we can enable children to protect themselves against them. Apparently, the image of a lurking stranger is that much more enticing to the media. But it is our responsibility to face the ugly truth that in most cases it is no stranger who harms children. And it is our responsibility to equip children with the adequate tools with which to own their bodies. To stand up for themselves and trust that they will be listened to when reporting.

Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, Ph.D., is a former academic turned public educator, author, speaker, freelance writer, and mama- and sex blogger. LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY is a resource site she founded devoted to progressive human sexuality information. This piece was originally posted there.

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