Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Fear of Strangers

We had just finished an errand at the newspaper office. My son, who was three or four at the time, was sitting on the top step enjoying the sunshine, while I read the paper several feet away. A man came out of the newspaper office and Lewis immediately started a conversation with him. Lewis invited him to sit down and relax on the stairs with him, which the man did. They chatted for a while about a variety of topics. Lewis invited him over to our house, and the man politely decined the invitation. Soon goodbyes were said and they both went their separate ways. What makes this incident so unusual, is that the man my son was talking to was a stranger.

As children we were regularly told not to talk to strangers. On the surface it may seem logical to instruct our children to do the same, due to a natural fear of the unknown, but let's take a closer look at it. 

First of all, do strangers truly pose that big of a threat? Sure, there are cases of abduction and molestation of children by strangers, but that is actually a very small percentage of the cases of abuse and kidnapping. A child is much more likely to be taken or abused by a relative, friend, neighbor, or trusted aquaintance. In other words, people the child knows, people who are not strangers. So to tell our children that strangers are dangerous and people we know are good, not only doesn't help them, it's just not true.

The second issue is that of making new friends - of all ages. If strangers are dangerous and you're not allowed to talk to them, how can you ever begin new friendships? And even worse, if your child is in trouble and needs help, how can he ask for it if he's not supposed to talk to strangers?

In raising our children, we tossed out the "don't talk to strangers" rule early on. Instead, we teach our children how to be careful and to trust their gut feeling if something seems wrong, regardless of whether they're talking to a stranger or to someone they know. We've eliminated the fear associated with strangers, and instead given them judgment skills they can use in all situations.

By getting rid of the fear, we are empowering our chilren. I've read more than once that if you want to minimize your chances of being the target of an attack, you should start by walking with your head up and with a confident stride. When a child is afraid of strangers, he will keep his head down to avoid eye contact, and will shy away from strangers as they pass. Without the fear, a child can greet each passerby with a smile, hold her head up, and walk in a direct and confident manner.

The other thing we gain by being accepting of strangers is a sense of community. Can you imagine a town where no one spoke to anyone they didn't know? You would have a town full of strangers who were fearful and suspicious of each other. This is the case in most large cities. Now imagine a town where everyone greeted each other with a smile and a "hello," regardless of whether they knew each other or not. After two or three meetings, perhaps a "hello" would develop into a conversation, and then maybe a friendship. Now we have a community where strangers don't remain strangers for very long.

A child's fear of strangers comes from her parents. This fear causes parents to cling tighter to their children, and to put their own peace of mind above the child's need to develop a sense of independence and confidence. We would be helping our children so much more by giving them the skills they need to be one their own, and giving them more and more opportunities to try those skills out. 

The people around us are like mirrors. If we frown and look suspiciously at them, they will do the same in return. Soon the distrust can grow and eventually turn into dislike - on both sides. If we greet others with a smile, however, we will often receive the same in return. Now the door to trust and friendship has been opened.

Talking to strangers is something my children do regularly. If they have a question while at a store or restaurant, they will walk up to the sales clerk or waitperson and ask it. If they see a person in need, they will offer a smile or even part of their allowance. If they are playing a game, they will invite those around them to join in - regardless of age. And, if a situation arises that make them nervous, whether they're with a stranger or someone they know, they know what they can do to get themselves in a safer environment.

So, take a deep breath and give your child a bit of freedom. The more faith you have in them, the more faith they will have in themselves. Gradually you can both feel comfortable with greater degrees of independence. And if you happen to see my children on the street, feel free to say "hello" to them.

This article was originally published August 1995 in Parent Guide, a SLO County newspaper.