Has "Stranger Danger" Gone Too Far?

photo from Mr. T in DC @

I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than 3-years old stood in her bright orange cart while her mother, standing one arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.

“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”

“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”

Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness.

"pink car" by hfb

“We don’t talk to strangers!” the little girl’s mother shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear but for everyone in the entire department to hear as well. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. But instead of smiling politely and wheeling her daughter away to speak with her privately, she made a big ole scene by shouting and pushing the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.

Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.

Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother would include teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people. Sometimes even people we don’t know. In her book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, author Lenore Skenazy points out that Americans watch a lot of  television, and the news is always going on about some child being raped, abducted, or snatched. We hear about how “…this kid went into the bathroom and some guy killed him, and [we] become very scared someone is on the prowl for [our] children” (87). This kind of thinking is crazy-making.

At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service – to calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother with children and ask her – this stranger – if she might use her cell phone to call me because we have become separated. He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help, but instead to reassure that person he is heading home and that he will send help back as soon as he can. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of these things into practice.

I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings. After all, at some point, he will need to know how to interact with people he doesn’t know, why not start early? I also think I have enough faith in humanity to believe that most people are not out to abduct or molest or kill my child.

And really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly ill-equipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous. That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. As far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude to other people.

What could be right about that?

15 thoughts on “Has "Stranger Danger" Gone Too Far?

  1. This is one of my pet peeves. People are no longer allowed to be nice to each other in public. Perhaps we have this growing irrational societal fear of abduction because our parents told us to be afraid of strangers.

  2. I talk to everyone wherever I go, and I encourage my kids too! If they are with me, and I am comfortable, then why not strike up a conversation? Hey, you might learn a thing or two along the way. I love people, and I love to talk to them. I hardly feel that a woman with a child should be treated as a danger.

  3. Wow, Renee, you handled that well. I, on the other hand, would have had a few choice words to say to that nut! People kill me! Always so paranoid of their own shadows. They live in this little bubble and create these sanitized little lives; it’s really sad. Now, I’m not saying to not be conscious, you have to be, but in order to function in society, you need society! I agree with you, my kids have learned to open their mouths (appropriately, and not so appropriately sometimes, to my dismay). From very early on, if we were shopping and they wanted to know a shopping question, like, “How much is this?” I would say, “See the lady with the name tag? Go ask her.” They learned to inquire, they learned to ask, they learned to relate to other people, and most importantly, they learned how to find out answers for themselves. Someday I won’t be there, then what? Panic, freak out, freeze, because I never thought them to ask for help? There are ways to teach our kids to be safe, yet live within society unafraid. I, too, have given mine the same lectures as you, and so far it seems to be working okay! Great topic!

  4. Yes, stranger danger has gone way too far, especially with that lady. I agree with Brette – I like striking up a conversation with strangers and being friendly. It’s a very American thing – talking with complete strangers, and the politeness that is part of the general culture. Israelis don’t strike up conversations with complete strangers, due to the stress and fear that becomes a part of life growing up surrounded by ferocious neighboring countries. I sometimes do strike up conversations with strangers and get weird looks, but then when they hear my obvious American accent, they usually relax and enjoy a friendly spontaneous chat with me. The most fun though, is striking up a spontaneous, friendly light-hearted chat with a fellow American who is also starved for this part of our familiar home culture.

  5. Renee,

    This is a very puzzling problem. I really don’t have an answer. Everyone has fears. But to what degree? You did nothing wrong but the lady apparently had fears.

  6. People seem to forget that most paedophiles and child abusers tend to keep it in the family. You don’t need to be scared of strangers on the whole, you need to be scared of Uncle Joe.

    Maybe the USA is more pranoid than the UK, I haven’t heard of anything this extreme.

    1. I think people in the U.S. have completely lost their manners! Seriously. We have become the most “uncivilized, civilized” country: what with our road rage, texting at the dinner table, talking on cell phones in restaurants, disrespect of anything of/or related to authority: I could go on.

      I see that “Target momma” as an extension of this breakdown in basic manners and common decency. It’s sad.

  7. Sounds like that mother, in her attempt to teach her child not to talk to strangers, was a little over reactive. However, in her defense, it’s never too early to teach this important lesson. Are we as parents to wait until the child is 10 years old and thinking that it is okay to get in the car with a strange man? There is a fine line between protective and over-protective. Sometimes it’s hard, as parents, to see the line clearly all the time. I honestly worry more about adults my child kind-of knows touching her in a wrong way.

  8. @got2havefaith – There is a huge difference between teaching your child not to get in a strange man’s car and not having a polite conversation in a store. They are not even close to the same thing.

  9. I cannot tell you how many times, standing in line at a store, that a complete stranger has come to my rescue by talking to my children. By the time we get to the checkout line they have had enough and are sometimes quite unruly. Having someone they have never seen before ask them a simple question takes their mind off from why they were upset,and leads them to have a nice little conversation so I don’t pull out all of my hair before we make our purchase.

  10. The woman you encountered sounds a lot like my mother. The only thing she taught me by overprotecting me and yanking me away from friendly strangers was that she was neurotic, and I couldn’t trust her judgment. It’s a shame.

  11. My almost-6yo is one of those kids who has never met a stranger. If I were as paranoid as that Target mom, I’d have died of a stress-induced heart attack by now. At stores, he literally goes out of his way (i.e. will run a couple of yards from me—or more) to show any person who walks by the new toy or T-shirt he is getting. And I think this gregariousness is one of his greatest gifts, or will be once he has a little bit more judgment about how to use it. I should also mention that he is friends with everyone in his school, both boys and girls, including the kids in older grades and the teachers.

    I was a misfit when I was growing up and I have the emotional scars to prove it. So how can I possibly view this social behavior as a bad thing for my son?

    I remember a trip to Target with him, where a woman in line at the in-store Starbucks struck up quite a conversation with him. Clearly a gregarious soul herself, she talked with him about her grandkids and his beverage preferences. And I thought, Some moms would freak out about this. But I was glad for it.

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