Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Don’t talk to strangers

The latest topic at nursery school (and will soon be a topic at playgroup, I believe) is ‘Don’t talk to strangers’.

This worries me. Perhaps because I grew up in the idealised seventies, when children would just go out to play in the street with their friends. When, at the age of six or seven, I’d pop up to the shop for my mum. The age when, if you were lost or needed help and your parents were not around, you asked an adult. Any adult. If there was an adult you knew (other child’s parents, shopkeeper, postie), you asked them first, but otherwise any adult.

You were also polite to adults. If an adult said ‘Hello,’ you said ‘Hello,’ back. You answered their questions ‘How old are you, dear?’ ‘Do you like school?’ and so on. And, somehow, you had a sense of who was dodgy and should not be spoken to. You knew that ‘Don’t take sweets from strangers,’ (which was a big advertising campaign at the time), did not include the little old lady waiting at the bus stop.

I had two flasher experiences as a child, and neither of them freaked me out, or scarred me for life. One was in the newsagent. The first thing I did was tell the newsagent and he chased the guy out of the shop, threatening to call the police. I then completed my purchase, walked home and told my mum. She was quite calm about it and said that flashers rarely do any actual harm, and I’d done the right thing. She talked to the newsagent the next time we were up there and that was that. The second time was up the beacon with my mum. She just walked past and ignored him and that was that. No trauma. Never saw them again.

Rosemary is very friendly and sociable. We walk down the street and she says ‘Hello,’ to pretty much everyone. She is quite curious and sometimes a little sad when they don’t respond. It’s lovely when you see someone sitting down or walking along looking unhappy or grumpy and their expression changes to true happiness to have a small child talk to them. Of course, there are also those who remain unhappy or grumpy and ignore her, but that’s fine.

More recently, I’ve noticed, however, that Rosemary rarely says ‘Hello,’ back to someone who says it first and I wonder if this is down to the message ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’ I wonder how they are delivering the message. Are they telling them it’s dangerous? Are they telling them nasty things could happen to them if they talk to strangers? Are they able to get across the ability to differentiate and to have that sense that we had as children of who was OK and who wasn’t?

Does this worry you too, or are you more worried about the dangers out there and feel safer if your children don’t talk to strangers? Do your children say ‘Hello,’ to random people in the street and how do you react?


  1. Def' food for thought there.... I have no answers xx

  2. My daughter says hello to anything that moves (and sometimes even things that don't). She can be slightly more shy if someone says hello to her first but I think that's just because she likes to initiate contact and sometimes it takes her by surprise when someone else does so first. Also, I figured it was a toddler control thing -- they want to be the first to say hello and can gain back some control by refusing to respond if they don't feel like it.

    I agree that we need a healthy awareness of 'stranger danger' but not to the extent that some people/newspapers/institutions would have us believe. People are still inherently good most of the time.

  3. It is also sad that most men, even Dad's themselves, would think twice about approaching a lost child for fear of being branded a pervert.

    Isobel is a little shy but has befriended every single one of the grumpy regulars in our local cafe.

    Another one of those tricky things about raising a child.

  4. My childhood sounds the same as yours. In the 70's we played out all the time, went to the village shop for mum, rode our bikes, played in streams.
    I think it's a terrible shame that my children will miss out on that freedom.
    It's a sad sign of the times. As NS says the media have scared us into keeping our children safe at home. We now see stranger-danger everywhere.
    I'm not sure that strangers are any more dangerous than they were 30+ years ago, but are you willing to risk your child? I'm not.

  5. Tricky. As I want my child to be polite, but a stranger to him may be someone I know well. My son is quite ignorant to adults offering pleasantries, but very chatty once 'Hello' is out the way.

  6. Very difficult. I want my children to be outgoing and confident, yet I am horribly aware that there was an attempted abduction down the road from us a year ago. So I let mine walk to the village, but I sit by the phone till they're back!

  7. I think this is one of those things that children learn slowly over a period of years, and mostly by taking their cue from you. How on earth do we all learn which seat on a bus to pick? The one next to the old lady who is rambling on to the person next to her about her knitting, or the one next to the teenager sniffing and wiping his nose on his sleeve as he texts, or the one next to the man who won't meet your eye?

    Why does Mummy sometimes chat to the person in the supermarket queue, but sometimes look the other way and not catch their eye? I think children just learn over years. It is indeed agonising to teach them to be afraid of strangers, and not to get chatting, but sersonally, I err on the side of caution. Until they have developed the judgement that comes with years, it's just easier for them to have a set of strict rules. It's safer for them, and it must make them feel more secure. It is sad, though, I agree.

  8. it probably depends a great deal on the circumstance, age and maturity of the child, and once again, one school rule does not fit all kids.

    my kids are aged 9 and i would much rather they spoke to strangers - like many others at this age my kids are highly unlikely to initiate conversations but they would quickly understand where their comfort boundaries are, depending on the words and demeanour of the speaker facing them. and i agree: they are learning through this who is dodgy and who is not.

    i want our kids to get to know people of all ages in our community and many of those people start off being strangers before they become friends.

    instead of making blanket rules like this, i think it is more sensitive and responsive to raise questions about who might stop and talk to us and why, safety in walking on the streets in pairs or groups, and the wisdoms of telling people you know where and when you are going. this would be much more aware of our local communities.

    rules like 'don't talk to strangers full stop' divides our society and communities. they make everyone suspicious of each other - you are a stranger to someone, no?

    are we next going to be told what decisions to make in case we make the wrong ones?

    oohh. sorry for that blogpost in your comments box. a lot of things like this have got my dander up now!!

  9. NS: Hadn't thought of its being a control thing. That's interesting and makes me worry a little less about that particular message (will probably continue to worry about other messages coming from anywhere/one that isn't me, of course!).

    Surprised: Yes, that is a big shame.

    Sandy: I think there probably aren't any more stranger dangers than there were, but that we have been revved up by the media to be more and more scared. That said, like you, I probably wouldn't allow my children the same freedoms I had as a child, though hope that I'll be able to strike some kind of reasonable balance.

    SPD: Good point about people you know maybe being strangers to your son. I've found myself being in a position where I need to give Rosemary permission to say 'Hello' to someone and even needing to give an explanation as to why they're 'nice'.

    DD: And do they have mobiles? I think I would feel somewhat safer (obviously in a few years' time, still) if they were at the end of a mobile!

    Iota: Yes, of course! That makes sense (you always make sense - how do you manage that?). They pick it up from us and others around them. Which is how children pick up racism and intolerance (they don't naturally notice differences in skin colour, for example), as well as how they pick up who to trust. My memories are from when I was a few years older than Rosemary, and I imagine it's quite likely she'll have picked up the signals from us by the time she's that age, too.

    Grit: I think you're thinking in the same way as me, here. Providing more information and strategies makes sense and it would be such a shame to miss out on getting to know people, just because you don't already. I have had lovely chats with strangers that I would not want to have missed out on. One I remember in particular was a 90-year-old lady sat on the grass in the park one lunchtime, who blagged a roll-up off me and told me all about her childhood on a farm and how she'd been vegetarian since she was five years old, because she'd watched her father kill a chicken and couldn't touch meat again. Amazing lady and I'm so glad I had the chance to meet her. But I think it's probably right that we need to temper it with knowledge of the child(ren) and their age and ability to understand. Just like we gradually impart other information, such as the 'facts of life' and scientific theories, expanding on them the older and more able to understand the child gets. (BTW, am still trawling through the report and trying to work out what I want to say about it all. Some things in it make some sense and other bits are getting me really annoyed and angry. Need to come to some kind of conclusion!)

  10. I think it's all been said. I want my kids to be aware that some people aren't nice, but I also want them to know that the majority of people are. At the moment, with children aged 4 and 8, I feel it's up to me to move them away from conversationalists I feel are not quite right, but encourage them to interact with others too. The other day as we waited for a taxi outside schmesco man engaged Miss M (4) in chat and it just felt a bit odd. I think he was slightly pi**ed and decided to move my girls away politely as his interest made me uncomfortable. I don't think either of my girls picked up on this, but I'm sure as they're older they will.

    Oh, and I tagged you in the BMB Recycle Week challenge. Hope you can join in. :D

  11. Interesting!!!!!!!!! I love prefixing my comments to you with this...You never fail to let me down!! Well, as you know, Renée loves speaking to strangers as well (and waving her cuddly toys in their faces)!! It freaks me out sometimes because I think she is just a little too friendly, but I'd hate to curb that sid eof her, so I try to teach her that she shouldn't speak to strangers if Mummy isn't around (which of course I always am so maybe that message hasn't quite got through to her yet). But as long as I'm around to vet the people that she's talking to then it's ok...

    I too had flasher moments when I was younger - two just like you - and I don't feel scarred by it either...to me it was just something that happened. Once on the tube and once in the Barbican on my way to school. Flashers just want to show you their wares and run off I think. I vaguely remember finding it quite amusing!!

    And yes, Renée normally talks to people who don't approach her first - it's the same when people try too hard - children normally don't warm to that (similar with cats)!!!

    btw - have just tagged you over at mine - Sorry - it's for a good cause!! xxxx

  12. It's a tough one, especially living in central London where the chances of bumping into the same person twice are remote, to say the least. I encourage my boys to say hello to people that they know, but if we said hello to everyone we met it would take us all day to walk to the car...

  13. I've always been told not to speak to strangers but when I was younger I walked to school in a rough part of Oxford on my own, aged 9. I wouldn't dream of letting my kids do the same now, even though we live somewhere different. I just think that you never know who that stranger is. At the moment I'm with mine wherever they are but I am dreading the time when they want to play out on their own!
    I've tagged you over at mine x

  14. This has always been an issue with me, since my little ones could walk and talk. I'm happy talking to most people and if a stranger talks directly to my children, I always encourage them to answer politely. When we're on our own, I remind them that it's good to be polite but highlight that Mummy doesn't know that person and they should never go off with a stranger without my permission. Now I know how my mother felt when I was their age.

  15. Erin will talk back to someone if they engage her, at the moment that's no problem as I'm always with her, as she gets older I'm sure we'll discuss certain scenarios

  16. Tasha, lovely to meet you on Sunday and I'm afraid I've tagged you...

  17. Jo: I think I'm worrying about it too soon. It's going to be a while before Rosemary's wandering around on her own, after all. As you and others have said, they will take their cues from us and, by the time they're old enough for it to be an issue, they will have developed their own sense of who's OK and who isn't. Just like I probably did way back in the Middle Ages. Thanks for the tag. Am still trying to work out which pledge (out of the things we don't do already) would be feasible, but will work it out tomorrow hopefully.

    Emily: I almost mentioned Renée, actually, but then thought it might be a bit off talking about other people's children! I suppose there's not much opportunity for it to become an issue yet and, others have said, they'll take their leads from us, which hopefully should be fine! Looks like I will be thinking up recycling pledges tonight.

    Potty Mummy: It certainly must be a different issue in London. I imagine there are still some teeny villages where everyone knows each other and the children all play outside with no problems. Maybe.

    Clareybabble: Which rough bit of Oxford? I lived in Barton for a bit and knew people in Blackbird Leys. Have to say I wouldn't be keen on letting my children walk around either of those places on their own! And, gosh, as tag that has nothing to do with recyling - how did that happen?!

    AMA: It's a difficult balance, that's for sure, but I suppose it's something that children grow to understand as they grow older.

    Erica: I'll be interested to hear how she responds to Mickey Mouse and friends. I always wondered if they might scare some of the younger children.

    Potty Mummy: Lovely to meet you, too - it was like meeting a celebrity! I guess I'd better get my recycling skates on and make a pledge!

  18. I've got the recycling one to do too!!We lived on the Cowley Road. I even got followed home by some weirdo one night. Plus we had tramps wandering around and a murder in the next street!!! What were my parents thinking?!?!?!

  19. Clareybabble: I had a friend who lived on Iffley Road - amazing the difference between the two parallel streets! Another friend got mugged on the Cowley Road, outside Tesco, at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. Hmm. And I was missing the place! Am off there on Tuesday, actually, though up the other end of town.

  20. Small world!! It's been about 20 years since I've lived there! I had a lot of friends there and did ballet, those are the only things I miss x

  21. Hee hee - yes when I saw the title of your post I wondered if you would mention Renée - I wouldn't have minded at all. It definitely got us both thinking...

  22. It's a minefield. I mean, what would we want them to do if they got lost when out shopping or whatever and couldn't find us? That's right, go talk to a stranger!!

    On a sombre note, I know a few people who were molested as kids and in all cases by family members/close friends of the family/adults in authority (teachers,scout leaders). It's not strangers who pose the biggest threat to our children.

  23. Mine are really shy, so they don't. If someone says hello to them, they usually put their head down (not sure where they get that from)