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Strangers Aren’t The Danger

November 8, 2011

A molester sat down next to me on the bus.  He was suddenly my best friend.  He was in fifth grade at the time, and I was in second, maybe, give or take a year.  He never touched me inappropriately.  He was just testing the waters, seeing if I was a likely victim.  And after a few days, he moved on and acted like he didn’t know me.    I didn’t realize what had happened for about ten years, when his name came up.  Turns out in high school I was friends with the kid he moved on to, the kid who was a better victim.  The molester chose right.  The kid he did abuse didn’t tell anyone until he told me.

The molester wasn’t a stranger, not really.  He went to my school and rode on the same bus.  He was another kid.  An older kid!  How wonderful to draw the attention of an older kid!  It was flattering, but it didn’t seem strange.  He wasn’t a stranger, and they rarely are. 

The thing is, I would have told.  I could have told.  Talking about sexuality in my house was perhaps awkward, but not discouraged.  If an older child or an adult had touched me in a way I wasn’t okay with, I would have told my mother, and she would have believed me.  And that’s the only thing that really matters.  So much of what you might have heard is complete bullshit and mythology; security theater and the child version of rape myths that soothe people by allowing them to think danger is over there.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has completely walked away from, and openly opposes, use of the phrase “stranger danger.”  Don’t take my word for it — See for yourself:

  • Do not teach “stranger danger.” Children do not have the same understanding of “strangers” as adults; the concept is difficult for them to grasp. And, based on what we know about those who harm children, people known to children and/or their families actually present greater danger to children than do “strangers.”

And just in case people miss that, they follow with a whole section explaining just that:

Is “stranger danger”—that dangers to kids come from strangers—really a myth?

Yes. In the majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone the parents or child knows, and that person may be in a position of trust or responsibility to the child and family.

We have learned that children do not have the same understanding of who a stranger is as an adult might, therefore, it is a difficult concept for the child to grasp. It is much more beneficial to children to help them build the confidence and self-esteem they need to stay as safe as possible in any potentially dangerous situation they encounter rather than teaching them to be “on the look out” for a particular type of person.

For decades, parents, guardians, and teachers have told children to “stay away from strangers” in an effort to keep them safe. In response to the on-going debate about the effectiveness of such programs, NCMEC released the research-based Guidelines for Programs to Reduce Child Victimization: A Resource for Communities When Choosing a Program to Teach Personal Safety to Children to assist schools as they select curricula aimed at reducing crimes against children.

What does the NCMEC recommend?  Here’s the short version from their FAQ:

  1. Don’t forget your older children. Children aged 11 to17 are equally at risk to victimization. At the same time you are giving your older children more freedom, make sure they understand important safety rules as well.
  2. Speak to your children in a manner that is calm and reassuring.Children do not need to be frightened to get the point across. In fact, fear can thwart the safety message, because fear can be paralyzing to a child.
  3. Speak openly.Children will be less likely to come to you about issues enshrouded in secrecy. If they feel that you are comfortable discussing the subject at hand, they may be more forthcoming.
  4. Do not teach “stranger danger.”Children do not have the same understanding of “strangers” as adults; the concept is difficult for them to grasp. And, based on what we know about those who harm children, people known to children and/or their families actually present greater danger to children than do “strangers.”
  5. Practice what you preach. You may think your children understand your message, but until they can incorporate it into their daily lives, it may not be clearly understood. Find opportunities to practice “what if” scenarios.
  6. Teach your children that safety is more important than manners. In other words, it is more important for children to get themselves out of a dangerous situation than it is to be polite. They also need to know that it is okay to tell you what happened, and they won’t be tattletales.

Much of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s mission though focuses on what its name suggests: missing children, those who have been abducted.  Most of its resources are about how to prevent children from being taken.  There have been some high-profile child abductions — Etan Patz in New York in the 70’s, Adam Walsh in the 80’s, and another one every few years somewhere.  But according to the Department of Justice NISMART-2 study from 1999, only 2% of children reported missing are abducted by non-family members; and that happened to just 0.17 of each thousand kids, or 17 kids out of each hundred thousand, in that year.  I don’t know any kids who were abducted by non-family members.  (I do know someone whose child was taken by a noncustodial parent.  That’s much more common.)

But I know plenty of people who were molested.  The friend I wrote about was abused by the kid who didn’t try to molest me.  I have a cousin and her sister who were molested by a relative; I had an aunt who was molested by her stepfather.  (After she left, my mother was in the house, and looked so much like my aunt that they look like twins in old photos.  For my friends who care about the family story, my mother said he didn’t but I never believed her and I don’t now.)  And my high school girlfriend (stepdad), and my other high school girlfriend (older child), and my friend from college (father) and my friend from college (neighbor),  and … and … and …

Family, neighbors, other kids, caretakers, clergy, coaches.  The people I know who were molested were molested by people who they loved and trusted, who their parents knew and trusted, who had reason to be alone with kids.  RAINN, the Rape and Incest National Network, has advice for how to talk to children about sexual abuse:

Talk to your children about sexuality and sexual abuse in age-appropriate terms.

 Talking openly and directly about sexuality teaches children that it is okay to talk to you when they have questions.

  • Teach children the names of their body parts so that they have the language to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.
  • Teach children that some parts of their body are private.
  • Let children know that other people should not be touching or looking at their private parts unless they need to touch them to provide care. If someone does need to touch them in those private areas, a parent of trusted caregiver should be there, too.
  • Tell children that if someone tries to touch those private areas or wants to look at them, OR if someone tries to show the child their own private parts, they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
  • All children should be told that it’s okay to say “no” to touches that make them uncomfortable or if someone is touching them in ways that make them uncomfortable and that they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
  • This can lead to some slightly embarrassing situations, such as a child who then says they don’t want give a relative a hug or kiss! Work with your child to find ways to greet people that don’t involve uncomfortable kinds of touch.
  • Talking openly about sexuality and sexual abuse also teaches children that these things don’t need to be “secret.” Abusers will sometimes tell a child that the abuse is a secret. Let your children know that if someone is touching them or talking to them in ways that make them uncomfortable that it shouldn’t stay a secret.
  • Make sure to tell your child that that they will not get into trouble if they tell you this kind of secret.
  • Don’t try to put all this information into one big “talk” about sex.
  • Talking about sexuality and sexual abuse should be routine conversations.

That’s information that people can use!  It’s information that’s pretty intuitive to the folks on board with the mission of this blog.  Some of it I’ve written about before, for other reasons, for example in Wipe Your Shame Cave, Honey.  Other things fall right in line with good basic messaging about bodily autonomy and respect, and healthy sexuality.  If you’re a parent, read the RAINN list, then read it again, then do it.  If you’re not doing it, you’re not doing your job. 

Many parents want to believe that they can hover over their children at all times and not let anything happen to them.  That’s fantasy, or madness.  Most people just can’t do that, because they have to earn a living and need to entrust their children to teachers and caretakers.  We can’t be with them always, except in the sense of the values we convey.  Children will make many of their most important decisions when their parents are not around, and we have to prepare them for that. 

And we want to trust our children to coaches and friends and relatives.  Childrens’ lives are so much less rich and fulfilled if we can’t.  Perhaps we like to imagine that we can screen these people perfectly, but we can’t.  The most important skill predators possess is to blend it.  They never seem like they’re predators.  they couldn’t operate if they did.

If all kids were Hit-Girl, this wouldn’t be hard.  They’d simply slice and dice attempted molesters.  But real-world kids are not superheroes.  Before there was a RAINN, my mother understood at a fundamental level that that there were only two things children could have that would allow them to protect themselves:

The right to have their “No” respected; and

The freedom to tell and be believed.

In fact, that’s what adults need, and usually don’t have, in a rape culture.  These issues are not really separable.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlie Goodnight permalink
    November 8, 2011 1:03 pm

    Great post, Thomas, thanks a lot! When I have kids of my own, this is something that’s going to call for a lot of thought and consideration.

  2. November 8, 2011 5:52 pm

    I wish my parents had had these guidelines – we got the “Too Smart for Strangers” videos and so on, but it would have been nice if they’d understood that I wasn’t obliged to hug or kiss a relative if I didn’t want to. (Luckily the fallout from this was just me getting yelled at for refusing, rather than having my fancies of being able to consent squashed with bad results in the future.)

  3. November 18, 2011 8:04 am

    Not “everything” you will read in the news about the EtanPatz case.
    This sculpture made by Frank Bender could very well be Etan Patz
    If a Dna sample will be taken from this John Doe Case File 437UMNC
    this case could be resolved.

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