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Talking to strangers can sometimes be a good thing for kids.

'Stranger danger' rule needs revising, expert says

Rubén Rosario, 27 June 2005 - source unknown

Come again?

Just ask Teresa Jacobs. And pay heed to what she has to say, particularly now during the summer months when kids are out and about, or placed in the care of others we think we can trust.

"Hard and fast rules like, 'Don't talk to strangers' can actually cause more harm," argues Jacobs, who works as program manager for a St. Paul-based foundation named after Minne-sota's best-known victim of a still unsolved stranger abduction, Jacob Wetterling.

"We used to teach stranger danger, but it can put kids more at risk," adds Jacobs, a public health specialist who conducts child safety presentations nationally on behalf of the foundation. "We have to get real with children about the facts and teach them how to navigate the world when adults they know aren't around."

This apparent rebuke to perhaps one of the most mandatory and well intentioned of parental warnings has some logic and teeth to it. And there is no better illustration of it than the circumstances surrounding the recent case of an 11-year-old boy lost in the Utah woods for four days.

Brennan Hawkins deliberately eluded a massive search and placed his life in further peril because of his fear of strangers.

"His biggest fear, he told me, was that someone would steal him," the boy's mother told reporters after Hawkins was found in an area where no one had thought to look.

Instructed to stay on the trail if he ever got lost, the boy nevertheless went off it and hid at the sound or sight of the approaching rescuers.

The boy's father acknowledged that Hawkins was not informed of situations when it was OK to bend the rule, such as if he got lost and people went out looking for him.

Jacobs and other public safety experts stress that unreasonable or irrational fear can totally dominate or shut out a critical self-preservation tool, our natural-born instincts.

"That boy probably felt hunted in the woods," Jacobs says. "If what consumes you is fear, then there's no possible way to find your instinct. The first thing we teach children is to trust their instinct, about what it feels like in their stomach, about safe and unsafe situations, rather than a general rule."

In her presentations, Jacobs peppers the audience, usually full of doubtful parents, with facts and the uncomfortable truth that the person more likely to harm your child is someone living at home or someone the child or the parent knows.

Perhaps the most disturbing statistics to audiences are that one in six girls and one in 10 boys are sexually abused before they reach adulthood, and that half of those predators are juveniles themselves, many known to their victims.

Jacobs acknowledges the obsession with strangers, particularly the resurgent fear of violent sex predators. Much of it is fueled by the high-profile abduction cases that make national news.

Two months ago, Jacobs was invited to speak in Colorado to a group of concerned parents and children following the abduction and slaying of Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl snatched by a neighbor who was a paroled sex offender. Jacobs was introduced as an expert on the dangers of strangers.

Naturally, most audience members had perplexed looks on their faces as she launched her presentation.

"I understand that confusion well," she said. "But when I showed them the facts and that parents often break that rule themselves, it began to sink in."

Though we may tell our kids not to talk to strangers, Jacobs notes that we nevertheless encourage them to do so in our presence, such as when we greet the school bus driver, shake hands with a co-worker or order food at a restaurant.

"To a literal-minded child, that sends a mixed signal," Jacobs said. Jacobs has seen TV news shows depicting through hidden cameras how easily kids inoculated with the stranger danger rule are lured from parks or streets on the pretense of helping to look for a lost puppy.

"What that shows is that the rule generally doesn't work," Jacobs said. "Instead, teach them that an adult should approach an adult, not a child, for help in those situations."

She says the best stranger to approach if a child feels lost or in harm's way is usually a female adult with children. Identifiable store employees may also be safe, but Jacobs advises teaching the child that someone in a police-like uniform may not be a police officer.

"You don't encourage children to talk to strangers, but when they are faced with some situations, you should let them know that most adults in the world want them to be safe," says Jacobs.

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