I encourage my children to talk to strangers.
I realize that statement might sound a little strange, so let me explain.
For generations the standard parenting safety advice has been “Don’t talk to strangers.” In my own childhood I remember hearing the story of Adam Walsh and his abduction. And for many years stories like his fueled the fear in parents that stranger abduction was a real and looming risk for their children. “Don’t talk to strangers” became a response to the fear that unknown predators were lurking on the fringes of every park and playground, waiting to snatch up our children. Scenarios were reviewed with school children where strangers are able to lure children with the ruse of a lost puppy or free candy, and “Don’t talk to strangers” seemed a logical defense against this type of danger.
Although well meaning, what researchers, therapists and the public at large have since learned is that children are at a much higher risk of being exploited by a family member, family friend or person in authority than a stranger. In all of the focus on strangers, children were left unguarded against the more likely danger of acquaintance exploitation.
But I believe that there has been another effect of the “Don’t talk to strangers” mantra. I think we have possibly raised generations of children who don’t know how to communicate outside of their own families.
A Breakdown of Communication
We’ve all encountered that friend at the market, said hello to their child, and the response is a cowering child whose face is buried in mom’s skirt. At one and two, that response is certainly understandable and developmentally appropriate. But once a child reaches preschool stage, assuming normal development, children are ready to engage with the world at large. When we discourage that, or fail to coach children toward engagement through speech, we are hindering their ability to learn social skills through experience.
This issue is compounded by the fact that children are more and more engaged in technology (screen time) at earlier ages. At restaurants, out shopping, at the pediatrician’s office; places where children in the past may have had the opportunity to speak to their server or greet neighborhood friends are now missed opportunities for children to practice and learn how to communicate through speech.
This problem is not limited to toddlers or schoolchildren; it carries over into adulthood. Mothers of adults in their twenties regularly call my office to make appointments for their adult children. My father, a pastor, regularly has to tell parents on the phone, “If you want to book a wedding for your daughter or son, the person getting married needs to be the one calling me.” Haircuts, doctors appointments, or any other manner of service where communication is required should not be a daunting task for a teen or young adult. But regularly, we see that it is.
When I coach individuals in their professional fields, communication is one of our first areas of assessment. I cannot tell you the number of adults in sales fields who are literally afraid of picking up the phone to respond to a contact, even when the other person has initiated the connection. What this tells me is that the aversion is not a fear of rejection of the sale, rather a fear of communication itself.
Adults need to be able to verbally communicate to do many of the basic tasks of adulthood. But moving beyond simply the basic tasks of adulthood, people who can communicate well possess a powerful tool that can result in a higher level of success both professionally and personally. People who communicate well interview better, opening up opportunity for a better career. And in many professional careers, being able to deliver a presentation, speak to clients or customers and network with colleagues are baseline skills.
Teach the Skill of Effective Communication
One of the blessings of the way my parents raised me was that communication was always stressed as being an important value. My parents always stressed that we were to look at and address adults who addressed us. Although that was sometimes an uncomfortable assignment, it was worthwhile and instilled in me the importance of good communication, a skill that has served me well. For that reason, it is something that I am trying to pass on to my own children.
So what does that look like in everyday life? When in public, I encourage my children not only to respond when spoken to, but to initiate communication as well. When my three-year-old sees another child at the park, I encourage her to say hello. When a colleague addressees my school aged boys, they understand that it is common courtesy to reply and engage in a friendly manner. I also encourage my children to not just respond, but to initiate conversations and ask appropriate questions to others.
We do this not only with acquaintances, but sometimes with strangers as well, and I believe it to be a worthwhile exercise. One of the ways that children and adults alike learn about the world is through discovering the experiences of others. If my children never spoke to strangers, they would never discover the intricacies of other cultures. They would never learn that it is ok to connect with people of a different skin color or that people with disabilities want to be engaged and not ignored.
On the issue of “stranger danger,” certainly with all this encouragement of communication does come the parallel lessons of when it is safe to engage and when it isn’t. For the most part though, most of us rarely, if ever, have our children in situations where they would have opportunity to be alone with a stranger. Of course there is always the exception or unusual circumstance and we can train children on how to handle those as well. But a blanket “Don’t talk to strangers” isn’t very helpful in protecting children from those who wish to harm them.
So moms, encourage your children to speak to others. Encourage them to respond and to initiate. Encourage them to speak to adults and children, to acquaintances and strangers. Encourage them to speak publicly when they have the opportunity to do so. For older children, teach them to talk on the phone, place a call and make an appointment for themselves. It will be uncomfortable for them at first. But instead of rescuing them from that discomfort, allow them to grow by doing something that is outside of their comfort zone. You will be giving them a valuable skill that will serve them for a lifetime.