Stranger danger leaves kids vulnerable to abuse

By MeganSchneider

After the epidemic of child kidnappers and murderers in the 1980s, a new term became a household staple: stranger danger. This notably started after the disappearance of Etan Patz, a young boy who went missing on his walk to the bus stop in 1979. “In my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana there were a couple cases of kids being taken,” math teacher Mrs. Jamie Piernicky who grew up in the mid to late 80s said. Teaching young children “stranger danger” was implemented into school programs and parents, like Piernicky’s, became extremely vigilant. Fear began to mount across the nation as it seemed every day a new child had been reported missing. 

Children’s faces, including but hardly limited to Patz, began appearing on milk cartons all throughout the 80s. “I remember the kids on milk cartons, it did feel like an epidemic,” Piernicky said. 

In 1982, CBS Evening News informed terrified adults that up to 50,000 American children were being kidnapped by strangers every year. These inflated statistics became all the proof parents needed when in actuality, the media sometimes lies. A report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention stated that in 2019, 0.3% of missing children cases were stranger abductions. Instead of falling for the fear-mongering tactics, parents need to realize that their close family friend is 10 times more likely to kidnap their child than a stranger. Freshman Lauren Hicks feels strongly about the potential harm solely teaching kids stranger danger can cause. “Many people in our world are kind,” Hicks said. “Teaching stranger danger is telling children that all people they do not know are dangerous to them.”

When young children are taught to avoid strangers it leaves them vulnerable to family and friends who are the most likely group to commit violence against them.

Freshman Lea Fals remembers being nervous when talking to new people as a child. “Kids take things really literally, like [I] did.” According to Safely Ever After, an educational organization dedicated to preventing childhood sexual abuse, this teaching “strips kids from interactions with new people, it prevents them from developing the critical, real-world skill of sensing potentially dangerous situations.” It also makes children less likely to report abuse done by someone they know. If the person is not a stranger, in the child’s eyes, they can do no wrong. 

Not to mention stranger danger has a history of allowing homophobia to be justified. According to Meagan Day, an editor at Jacobin magazine, for decades it was assumed that Patz’s abductors were associated with NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a fringe group that became a source of lurid fascination, especially among conservatives who declared its existence a natural consequence of extending rights to LGBTQIA+ people.

Shifting the blame of violence against children to faceless strangers and gay men as opposed to facing the reality of domestic violence and incest perpetuates the problem. “Teaching kids to trust their gut instincts would dramatically help solve this problem,” junior Madeline Wear said. “Instead of ‘stranger,’ we need to identify them as people with dangerous intent.” Without change to how children are taught to protect themselves, young kids are left susceptible to harm. 

“There is a fine line when parenting to teach your kid to be cautious, but not paranoid,” Piernicky said. “There are horrible people out there and you want them to be safe, but not jaded.” So how can this problem be solved? Even if they happen to a lesser extent, children do get kidnapped by strangers and it would be naive to say stranger danger should not be taught at all. 

There’s a movement to rebrand “strangers” as “tricky people.” Introduced by Safely Ever After, the idea is that it’s not how well a child knows a person, it’s what they say or do that makes them “tricky.” A tricky person might tell a kid to keep a secret, or ask for help, or do something else that makes them feel uncomfortable. This solution also makes the concept easier for children to understand. People like their new first grade teacher or a new neighbor are strangers, but have done nothing to warrant a child to feel unsafe. When children are taught to listen to their gut, it dramatically decreases their susceptibility to abuse or violence. 

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