Stranger Danger?

We live in a scary world. A world where we need to be cautious of strangers and, more importantly, we need to teach out children to be weary. But how do you teach a child to be safe without teaching them to be afraid? How do you teach kids to balance being polite with being safe? And why do strangers insist on making this training even more difficult?

K is already a weary child by nature. She takes time to warm up to everyone and all new situations, so for the first nearly three years of her life I have concentrated on teaching her to be polite. I encourage her to say hello every well-meaning person we pass who greets her, and I have taught her to say thank you to every compliment about how adorable she is, her lovely hair, how well behaved she is or her fashionable attire. But where does the line between polite and being alert begin? It is a topic I have heard debated at playgroups since she was born, and it continues to perplex me.

On our weekly trip to CVS today, we were greeted by an elderly (late 70s/early 80s) woman with her also-elderly husband. She was a sweet lady, and I am sure her intentions were meant well, but the jaded parent in me was put on HIGH alert.

The woman asked my daughter if she likes turtles, and in a cheery voice I replied for her, “Oh, she loves turtles,” as my daughter tucked her chin down and stared at her hands. The next thing I knew, the lady was pulling something out of her purse and reaching to hand it to my daughter (remember I said elderly, she couldn’t bend down to reach my daughter, so I had to assist.) The woman handed over a small plastic turtle.

“That’s for you to take in the bath,” the woman said. “Now put it in your pocket and be sure not to loose it.”

The polite mom in me told my daughter (who was grinning from ear to ear), “What do you say to the nice lady?”

With a cheerful, “Thank you,” my daughter pocketed her little turtle.

The over-protective mom in me stepped in at this point, and we got out of line to go look for something we had “forgotten” in the store… When we got to the car, all my daughter could talk about was that turtle, which I had already calculated would not be coming home with us. I explained that the turtle was dirty and needed to stay in her jacket pocket, dreading her asking for it at home. Without fail, she has asked for it twice since we arrived home and asked to give it a bath. For now the turtle is hidden in the closet until I can further inspect the prize during nap time. But even if she forgets about the turtle (with our trip to the circus tonight), I am filled with angst.

What should I have done, what did this teach her? I am so proud of the polite little girl that she has become (with my constant encouragement), so I don’t want her to be rude to people – strangers or otherwise. And yet… she must learn that not all strangers are well meaning. Where is the balance? And why must there even be a balance? This woman most certainly was just being kind (albeit a little odd), it makes me terribly sad that in today’s world her actions should be seen as intrusive and troubling to a mother who wants to protect her child from the evils of the world.

What would you do? How do you teach your kids to be polite vs safe?

13 thoughts on “Stranger Danger?”

  1. Gosh, I really don’t know what I would do in this situation! There’s SUCH a fine line between teaching children to be polite and teaching them to be careful around strangers.

    To be honest, I’m an incredibly cautious parent. Granted, my kids are only 1 and 2, but I know I’m over-protective compared to other parents with little ones of the same age. My kids are also very shy and they don’t like to talk to people they don’t know. I’ve talked with this at length with my sister (who went through the same thing with a few of her kids) and she’s said that she’d rather have a shy child than one who will “go with anyone.” I have to agree with that sentiment! I think most kids become more extroverted as they get older. As they grow up, stranger danger becomes less of an issue, so I think I’d rather have a child that’s reserved when they’re really young like your daughter.

    I’m trying to put myself in your shoes. I think I might have let my daughter accept the gift but then had a quick chat about stranger danger vs. being polite (and I probably wouldn’t have let her keep the toy). It’s a tough lesson to give a 3-year-old, but hopefully it would sink in that we don’t keep gifts from strangers.

    I don’t know…this is a tough one!

  2. My thought is the same as Penelope’s. I would explain to your daughter that accepting anything from a stranger without you being there is not allowed. It is sad but these situations make me wary as well.

  3. Nah, she was iwth you. I think all you say is that she always makes sure mommy is around when she talks to someone and shows mommy if anyone ever hands her a gift, if anything for you to wash the germs.

    Im not sure an 80 year old woman handing a little girl a plastic turtle is enough to get all CSI over. LOL

    She also needs to know there are plenty of amazing and kind people in the world too and its ok to accept them and not be afraid of the world.


  4. The optimist in me says that you should just explain to her that she should never accept gifts from strangers when Mommy is not around.
    The realist in me says that she will think that if it was okay with Mommy there, surely it would be okay just this one time.
    The pessimist in me says that it was a creepy thing for the old lady to do.
    So, where do I way in? I teach my kids that they are not allowed to accept anything from anyone they don’t know without Mommy’s approval. Of course, mine are 2 and 3, so we have yet to run into any issues.

  5. I would tell her that it is okay to accept something if you are there and say it’s okay. I once had to stop an old lady from handing my two year old son a hard candy in a department store. It was 16 years ago and people were more approachable than they are now, but that was still way out of line.

  6. I’m 53 and still remember when I was about 5 very “odd” neighbor of our gave me a stick of gum and a nickle. I was so excited I had to run in and show my parents. My mom walked me to the neighbor’s house and made me thank them but tell them I couldn’t accept it. I wasn’t allowed to accept gifts from anyone. They had a long talk with me later that I was not allowed to accept any gifts from people unless I asked their permission first.

  7. not reading the other comments above…

    1st off I have 4 kids. I am cautious to an extent and I teach my children well. I think there are good and bad situations in the world and when it comes to strangers my rule is
    “when your with mommy or daddy or I’m right here… then”
    If I am not around then they just dont talk to them. Unless they work there. I keep my children close to me. I do not let them go into isles alone or send them for things. No matter how old they are. (not even my 10 yr old daughter or niece)
    To be quite honest I see nothing wrong with giving her that turtle but because of germs I would certainly let her seeing me give the turtle a bath. if you teach her that all things given to her by strangers need to be inspected by You or dad (ie halloween candy) then it should be fine. I give my school age child a code word as far as people go and if she’s uncomfortable or feels weird around strangers she just says the word to alert me. Learning is a process and if you teach your child daily they learn, retain and follow.

  8. I also try to remember that this is a difficult time for seniors too. She probably is a grandma and maybe she found or got the turtle and like some seniors do, held on to it. I know my grandma’s purse was always filled with all kinds of trinkets.

    Being a senior, she was also a mother during a time when blind trust was easily found everywhere you looked. Since she was the mother of young kids, a lot of things have happened, a lot of horrible events involving children has taken place and the world will always be forever changed for mothers since her.

    I would stress to your child that it is important for her to always ask you or her dad first. For us, it isn’t a biggie right now because she is 2 1/2 so she is always with us, or with her daycare. We are planting the seeds of stranger danger though.

  9. I had something sort of like that happen this past summer and blogged about it as well and got mixed responses which I think you will as well (

    I agree with you on this one though – although it was ‘just’ a turtle it could have been candy or something else and that holds all kind of danger. I think we should teach our children *not* to accept gifts from strangers and reply with a statement like that, “My mom said I can’t take gifts from strangers” plain and simple. Of course, my 3 year old would never remember that so I have to be her advocate.

  10. I would have thought it was weird too, but I would also reinforce manners and later remind my child about stranger rules. My child is 18 mo. so we are just in the beginning stages of all the safety rules, but we were in the grocery store one time and this old lady asked if she could give him some Goldfish crackers from an open bag she had in her purse. Thinking on the fly I told her he wasn’t allowed to have Goldfish yet, but thanks, and then walked swiftly away. I do encourage him to say hi or wave to all the employees when we’re out and about.

  11. I’m probably no help but that would’ve freaked me out. I’m probably WAY to cautious but when you put “In the bath tub” I had red flags. Sure she probably meant well and all but like you said in this day & age you just can NEVER know what someone’s true intentions are.

    Now back to your question, I think that you could tell her how proud you were that she used her manners but then remind her that she shouldn’t talk to strangers and while the gifts are a nice BUT shouldn’t be accepted unless Mama/Daddy is around and THEN they need to be checked by Mama and Daddy first to make sure they are safe.

  12. My son will not talk to any stranger, even when I tell him it’s ok! It still takes him a little while to warm up to distant family members. I’m a little bit happy about this. At lease we know he will not talk or take anything from strangers!


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