How do you gauge whether a situation involving a stranger is or isn’t safe for your child? And how do you teach your child about stranger safety? MH speaks to some mothers to find out what unnerves them and how they overcome it.
WORDS ANTOINETTE TAN
In March 2012, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) investigated various online postings about young children allegedly being led away by strangers. Although there were no related cases of kidnapping or abduction at that time, one can never be ‘too safe’; there have been countless cases of child abduction, abuse and murder in other parts of our region and further across the globe too. One such example was the case of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky, who was kidnapped and gruesomely murdered in Brooklyn in 2011.
While parents are usually happy to see their children interact with and befriend others of the same age, it doesn’t hurt to be extra vigilant when it comes to approaching adult strangers. One can never be too certain of their intentions or hidden agenda, if any.
The Good, Bad and Ugly
Myka D’Souza, a senior director at a travel management company, shares her first-hand experience that illustrates the sad truth of such preying perverts, “Once, I was in a shopping centre, a crowded one I should add, and I saw a girl about seven years of age looking lost. Before I could go up to her to guide her to the information counter, I noticed a man following her super closely. I then realised he was actually rubbing himself on the poor girl! I had to do what I had to do and caught hold of him by the hair, and reported him to the security.”
However, not only had the man’s paedophilic behaviour caught everyone off-guard, the girl’s mother surprised Myka too. “The saddest part for me,” the mother of four says, “was to realise that the girl’s mother just whisked her daughter away and pretended that the scene wasn’t a big deal. Imagine what the child could be thinking? That the act is okay? Or that it is not important?”
Granted, not all adults have ill intent, and the circumstances (within which the interaction between the adult and your child takes place) are equally important. Like at a religious-based gathering, perhaps.
Suelynn Koh, an educator and mother of a six-year-old girl elaborates, “Dawn is very sociable with anyone, but if she does make conversation with adults, it’s only when we’re around. Generally, she will not initiate unless the adult appears friendly towards her. My husband and I are involved in the Marriage Encounter movement, so Dawn has lots of opportunities to meet different aunties and uncles, so maybe that’s why she’s not typically shy.”
Gauging the Grounds
Parents still need to be vigilant though. Suelynn states, “There’s a certain social appropriateness you can sense in a person. Some people just come across as odd, whilst others appear warm and engaging without being too intrusive. For instance, parents and grandparents with kids engaging in small talk with our child and keeping us in the conversation is alright, but a single man doing so would be regarded with more caution.”
Myka adds, “My maternal instincts and protective ‘mother-hen’ nature will spring to life! Any male figure approaching or talking to any child should never be seen as alright. It is a definite no-no for me. Better to be safe than sorry. If the stranger is a senior citizen (really senior) with a sweet disposition, it should generally be alright; how far can senior citizens run with my child? This may be an assumption and I may be wrong but the gut plays a major role in deciding if the situation is dangerous or not. Also, if there are other parents or ‘witnesses’ around, it should be safe.”
Carol Low, a research manager in the media industry and mother to a four-year-old boy agrees too. “I have no issue with Tyler talking to other children at the mall or playground. However, he especially likes to reach out to the elderly. When he starts approaching adult strangers or when he’s approached, I will move nearer to let the other party know that his parent is near. I’ll read the facial expression and body language to see if the person is annoyed or overly friendly. Either of the extreme scares me.”
“As long as we’re in public with people around, it’s safe. To be honest, if the other party is also with his or her own children, my guard will be let down. So far, we’ve been quite lucky, as the grown-ups that Tyler warmed up to were usually nice and ‘safe’. In fact, a year ago, there was even an incident where he took the bait (free chocolate) and wanted to follow the (friendly) couple home…I felt so angry and betrayed. Never take anything for granted; all it takes is an insignificant bait to lure him away, so be vigilant!”
Rewriting the Rules
Since the level of discernment and situations can vary greatly, adding to that the differing ways to respond, how then can we teach children about safety among strangers?
Myka employs lots of open, verbal communication. “I have lots of one-to-one with each of my four children. I take all the opportunities to teach them not to talk to strangers, to use their voice if they are in any dangerous situation, and to never take sweets or goodies from anyone. I occasionally explain real-life child-kidnapping stories. Sometimes, TV shows or movies do have examples that can be ‘educational’ in explaining these unwanted situations as well.”
Carol shares her tips, “As he is too young to understand danger, we need to constantly remind and have prep-talks from an authoritative, instructional tone. As an inquisitive child, Tyler is intrigued by story plots and is highly engaged during story-telling sessions. Hence, usually during bed-time, I will spin the experience or teaching into a story with a fictional name and weave the moral into the plot.”
Suelynn uses books and role-playing too. “We read her story books about stranger awareness and did role-playing with her. Discussions would usually follow after the stories, as she is now of age to ask us ‘Who is a stranger?’ and ‘If Mummy and Daddy talks to someone, does it mean they are not strangers?’” What are the definitions of strangers and do they all look ‘bad’? An apt question indeed. Instead of warning them against strangers per se, how about a different approach?
According to the National Crime Prevention Council in the United States, it is more useful to teach children the difference between ‘safe strangers’, dangerous situations, and suspicious behaviour instead. ‘Safe strangers’ constitutes police officers, firemen or teachers – all in public only, of course – or perhaps even other mothers; and to face dangerous situations and suspicious behaviour with an assertive “No, Go, Yell, Tell”.
These tips are especially apt because strangers, good or bad, can still appear pretty or nice. In any case, should your child be lost, to whom can they ask for help if they aren’t allowed to speak to any stranger?