I’m sure we can all remember being young children and learning about the terrifying subject matter of “stranger danger”. We heard that the bad people of the world didn’t always look like the villains in our favorite cartoons and movies. The predators were people who looked safe, seemed nice, and probably drove around in an SUV, not a creepy, unmarked utility van like we assumed.
My parents definitely talked to me about the importance of staying vigilant around unfamiliar people and places, and even designing a secret code (that only made sense to close friends and family) if I ever found myself face-to-face with a person I did not know who might try to harm me.
I absolutely agree with teaching preventative safety measures to children, so that they can be as prepared as possible if a terrible scenario ever actually happened. Except, I look back on the information my parents and teachers drilled into my head, and I realize that I have totally ignored all of that advice.
I actually think I did the opposite of everything I was told to do when talking to someone I didn’t know and I feel like we should be teaching that you can’t possibly know when a stranger is friendly or dangerous, and to take chances on people without making snap judgments (within reason).
Curious, I decided to refresh my brain on what I was taught about not talking to strangers. I visited the National Crime Prevention Council and learned that there are “pretty” and “not-so-pretty” strangers, and that you cannot identify whether either type is safe or not, just by appearances. The NCPC wants children to know to be cautious around all unfamiliar people, and be able to identify “safe strangers”, who are people that are the safest to seek out for help if a child is lost or in danger. These people are usually other adults in trustworthy professions (i.e. police officers, fire fighters, teachers, etc.). The site mentions pointing out these people and places that are safe should help your child know what to do in an iffy situation.
I have an issue with the information given for identifying “safe” or “unsafe” strangers. The information is conflicting and confusing, and sounds like it instills more fear in the unknown than actually relieves any anxieties. The only information I agreed with was identifying questionable intentions of others you may not know and learning how to trust your intuition. If something seems off, it probably is.
The problem I have here is that while trying to remember some of the most talked about preventative measures during my elementary school career (which was K-6th grade due to living in a small town) and I could only really think of two of the “most important” safety concerns taught to us. The first: how much I heard the “Stop. Drop. And Roll” mantra, and the second: “Don’t talk to strangers”.
Why do I have such an issue with this distortion of dangerous, unfamiliar people?
Because, we cannot learn, grow, thrive, connect, and form thoughts for ourselves when we become fearful of every person around us that we don’t know.
I’m not saying just let your little humans run rampant and get in strange cars with strange people. I highly caution against that. However, I also share caution with becoming too obsessed with telling your children who to trust and not to trust. Some of the closest people in our lives may turn out to be frauds, and become the danger we needed to look out for all along. While we are all becoming hyper vigilant of every new face we see (and waiting for them to strike), someone we know well and trust can be using this as a distraction to continue getting closer; and is taking advantage of the misconceptions of “safe” and “unsafe” people.
While people are walking around with the fear of being harmed by a faceless person (whether consciously or subconsciously) we may be missing out on an opportunity to learn how to really socialize with others, beyond the “likes”, “shares”, and “retweets” that only require a tap or a click. I’m talking about having a meaningful conversation with someone you don’t know anything about. Think of every person you know, whether they are coworkers, college roommates, your best friend, or that tinder match you’ve met up with for drinks once or twice (who actually turned out to be a decent human being).
All of those people were once those mysterious questions marks you weren’t sure if you could trust, and now you aren’t sure you can imagine life without them.
I was fearful and overly cautious of new people when I was a kid. Not the kind of fearful that made me think every unfamiliar person was out to kidnap and hurt me. I was afraid of trusting new people, and honestly I still find that I keep some of myself hidden from others. I thought that people generally had bad intentions, and were trying to trick me one way or another. I think this is why I was, and still can be, shy and quiet. I didn’t want to reveal too much or I would be judged or hurt in some way.
Then, I just kind of grew to realize I wouldn’t get over this fear of unfamiliar people if I didn’t at least try to relieve the anxiety of the unknown. I don’t introduce myself to every stranger on the street, but I do little things. I smile at people I might make eye contact with, I compliment people now and then (in a very non-shallow way) if I notice how well they did their makeup or if I really like their shoes, and I might crack a joke with a newly hired employee at work to ease their nerves of being in a new professional environment (which can be intimidating).
I literally ignored almost everything I was taught about not talking to strangers, and have met the most interesting, genuine, fun-loving people I have ever had the pleasure to talk to, and even call many of them my friends (and some are my best friends).
I went to a few different colleges and learned how to be comfortable being around and living with people I initially knew nothing about.
I flew across the ocean with a single backpack of essential belongings (a true test for a makeup addict who only brought a small mascara tube and a tiny, all-in-one highlighter/bronzer palette for times I wanted to look dressy) with nothing familiar around me.
I asked strangers for directions, I shared rooms with strangers, drank with strangers, and explored unfamiliar countries with unfamiliar people. I made so many new friends who came from all around the world. I’ve made more friends from different countries while attending music festivals on my own and with my boyfriend and brother. We’ve danced, drank, talked, laughed, and camped amongst thousands of fantastic strangers.
Dom was once a handsome stranger, who turned out to be a super nice person, and soon after a few dates, a pretty great boyfriend.
I signed up to be a contributing writer for Odyssey, placed on a team of complete strangers who share personal thoughts through their writing, and who I have been able to get to know through our group chats, emails, and articles. These are people I have never met in person, but who I really appreciate and learn so much from.
I don’t blame my upbringing or the lessons taught to me by the adults in my life. I just blame a society that is perpetually waiting for something bad to happen. This influenced the need for parents to become intrusive and overly protective of their children over the years. Without the constant warnings of “stranger danger” I’m not sure what would happen with this world.
I agree that we need to proceed with caution when being around so many unknown people, but I’m not so sure we need to teach that being on high alert is the best way to live out our lives.