Teaching Kids Stranger Safety

Parenting tips I offered as the  expert on the NBC Dateline special: “My Kid Would Never…” series “Stranger Safety Tips”

Listen…can you hear it? It’s the familiar jingle of the ice cream truck coming down the street carrying every kid’s favorite candy and ice cream flavors. Now suppose your child is with his pals, that truck pulls up and a young, friendly driver steps out.

“Hi kids!, he says. “Want an ice cream? I bet I have your favorite. Come look!,” he says.

Then he slides open the window to reveal an enticing array of choices. Your child may be a bit cautious, but the driver opens the door and invites him or her to step in. “You can’t see all the selections from out there. Look what I have inside. I’m giving them out free today,” he says.

Do I have your radar up? After all, you know that child predators prey on kids vulnerabilities and a free ice cream is a hard for a kid to resist. But you’ve taught your kid about “stranger danger,” and even warned your son or daughter about those ploys.

So here’s my question: Would your child get inside that truck and fall for that trap? Are you really sure?

I’d advise you to not be so quick to say: ‘My kid would never…’” despite all your lectures and safety drills. The reality is most kids are vulnerable to predator tactics and tricks, especially when the enticer appears younger and friendly. The pull of negative peer pressure often makes it even harder for kids to apply our stranger safety lessons we assume we so carefully taught and learned.

Dateline producers wanted to find out just how school-aged kids respond to the ice cream truck scenario. Do most kids get into that truck or turn down the ploy and walk away? They set up hidden cameras, and had a young actor portray the friendly ice cream man and drive up to kids while their parents watched in anticipation.

The result: almost every child got inside that truck much to their parents’ surprise – and horror. (That segment on the series, “My kid would never…” aired last Sunday.) Dateline producers then asked me to review the tapes and provide tips for a more effective way to teach kids stranger safety.  Here are those crucial tips I offered on the segment as well as today on the live Dateline web chat with Natalie Morales.

STEP 1: Empower Your Child to Say “No!”

If you want your kid to stand up for herself, don’t get in the habit of speaking for her or rescuing. Doing so can rob a child from developing the very skills she needs to look and sound determined.

Instead, find opportunities for child to practice using strong body language and a firm voice so she can learn to defend himself. Here are a few pointers:

Give Permission to Say “NO”: Studies show that kids under the age nine rarely say “No” to a sexual offender because they were told “to obey adults.” So give permission for your child to yell NO. “If someone tries to touch you in places your bathing suit covers, makes you feel at all afraid or uncomfortable, say “NO! You will not be in trouble.” “If someone tells you to do something you know is not right like get in an ice cream truck say “NO!”

Teach: “Use your gut instinct.” A “fear factor” can be a powerful in keeping kids safe, but often isn’t used because we fail to help our kids learn theirs. Teach your child that if she ever feels he could be in danger, to use that fear instinct and leave immediately. You’ll support her…no matter what!

Teach 9-1-1. Make sure your child knows her first and last name, your first and last name, phone number, and address. Program your phone so your child can reach you and dial 9-1-1 instantly. Put a sticker on the “0.” Then teach how to dial “operator” to reverse charges, so she can call you from any phone anywhere.

Establish a family secret code. Choose a memorable code like “Geronimo,” to give only to family members or trusted individuals responsible for your kids in your absence. Then stress: “Never leave with anyone who can’t say our family’s secret code.” Create a texted code (like “111” or “123”) to be used by the child to contact you if in danger. It recently saved a California teen from abduction.

Teach: “Drop, Holler, and Run.” Teach your child that if he ever needs to get away quickly, he should drop whatever he is carrying, holler, and run. If possible, he should run to an adult (ideally a woman with children) screaming, “Help! This isn’t my dad!” If grabbed, he should hold on to anything (such as his bicycle handles or car door) holler, and kick an abductor in the groin or eyes. Dropping to the ground and kicking-tantrum style-makes it more difficult to be picked up. Stress: “I’ll never be upset if you hurts someone if you’re trying to protect yourself.”

STEP 2. Help Your Child Recognize Suspicious Adult Behavior

Instead of scaring (and possibly even confusing) your kids with the “Stranger = Danger” approach, a more effective strategy is teaching kids to recognize suspicious adult scenarios and behaviors.

What follows are a few adult behaviors kids should be aware and leery of. These points are not designed for one discussion, but topics for numerous shorter chats over the years with your kids. Talk about each one in the context of your child’s age and stage and then watch how your child responds. It may help you recognize your son or daughter’s vulnerability (such as “you can have a puppy!”) so you can discuss the issue more.  

  • Asking for help: “I need help finding my child. Please help me!”  “Can you help me look for my puppy?” Emphasize that your child can always ask a stranger for help, but a stranger does not ask kids for help.
  • Offering treats: “Would you like some candy?” “I have a skateboard in my car. Would you like it?” “I’ll let you have one of my kittens (or pet my cat), if you will sit on my lap and watch this video.”
  • Feigning an emergency: “Hurry! You mom was in an accident. I’ll take you to the hospital.”
  • Flaunting authority: “I think you’re the kid who hurt my son. Come with me and we’ll go find your parents.”
  • Pretending to be an official: “I’m with the F.B.I. and this is my badge. You must come.” (Tell your child to call you ASAP to verify the situation.
  • Faking friendship. “I’m an old friend of your dad’s. He asked me to come over. Can you take me to your house?”
  • Keeping a “secret.” Predators often try to make kids promise to keep the abuse a secret. Teach your child: “If any adult asks you to keep an uncomfortable secret, tell me.” You might say: “It’s okay to not keep a secret even if you promised an adult.”
  • Needing personal information: “What’s your address? If you give it to me, I’ll send you a toy.” “I need your phone number so I can contact your parent.” Stress to your child: “Do NOT give out personal information such as your name, address, phone number, school, parents name, social security number, credit card number.” Then teach: “An adult does not ask a child for personal information. They ask the child’s parent.” (An exception is the child’s school).
  • Requiring kids to open the door.” Stress repeatedly to never open the door to someone who is not an immediate family member. Explain that anyone who is a friend will understand your rule and not mind waiting. Stress: “Don’t say anything-find a parent!” If you’re not home, tell your child to phone you from a backroom or 9-1-1 if in danger.

These points are not designed for one discussion, but topics for numerous shorter chats over the years with your kids. The secret is bringing up the topic in a relaxed way just as you discuss earthquakes, pool safety and using cross walks and the best time to start those talks is when our kids are young! You are laying the groundwork to not only prevent abuse but also get the crucial help a child might need just in case.  The key for kids to learn is: “Adults should not trick kids to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.”

You might brainstorm with your child which adults he or she could turn to for help in each situation if you’re not around (for instance, in your neighborhood or school): “What if that person didn’t help or wasn’t there?” or “Who could you go to for help?”

STEP 3: Rehearse Stranger Safety Skills Repeatedly

Keep in mind that the best way to teach any skill is to show what it looks like, and then practice over and over until the child can use the safety skill without you. Look for fun ways to rehearse the skill in context. If you see a child using “assertive” skills, point it out.

While there are no guarantees for our children’s well being, research shows we can teach a few crucial safety basics that may help them be less likely to be harmed. Though you may fear that talking about frightening issue such as kidnapping will scare the pants off your kids, not doing so is a mistake. The secret is to bring up the topic in relaxed way just as you discuss fire and pool safety. Just consider your child’s age, developmental level and the safety skills he needs at that point in his life.

Statistics show that the vast majority of child abductors are someone the child personally knows. In fact, research shows that 85 percent of kids found alive after being abducted did not consider their kidnapper to be a stranger, which is all the more reason to teach different types of safety tips.

Above all, remind your son or daughter that you are there whatever the situation may be, and you love him or her no matter what.

Now, go practice those skills!

Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist, parenting expert and Today show contributor. For more about her work see Michele Borba.com or follow her on twitter @micheleborba.


National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) research found 85 percent of kids found alive after being abducted did not consider their kidnapper to be a stranger: Nancy Huehnergarth, “Danger Zone,” Parents, Jan 2005, p. 155.

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