It seems like every week there is another news story about a child who is kidnapped or murdered. Parents are much more cautious with their children than our parents were with us. Most of us have probably trained our children from a young age to be wary of strangers and to memorize the phrase “stranger danger”.
As Christians, though, God has made it very clear he wants us to entertain strangers and help those who are possibly out of our comfort zone. The ministry of Jesus made it very clear that God does not want us to reject people who are different or maybe even a little scary. Jesus definitely set an example by reaching out to all kinds of people who would have been considered undesirable by the religious elite. He even had a tax collector and a Zealot as two of his apostles.
My husband and I realized very early that the “stranger danger” training we had done with our daughter had worked very well. She never wandered away from us and we never really had any incidents. As she grew older though, we realized we needed to refine our training. Too much “stranger danger” training results in children who are reluctant to talk to strangers at all. This includes servers or the nice old lady in the park who stops to talk to both of you.
My fear is that even we as adults have become so cautious that many are not having the gospel shared with them because of our reluctance to encounter strangers. We have begun to assume anyone we do not know is a stranger who may hurt us. Sharing the gospel with them is the least of our worries.
So how do we keep our children safe, while instilling in them the godly desire to share God’s love and the Gospel with everyone they meet? The trick is balancing the two and focusing the safety training a little more.
Four years of life in New York City and several more in various inner city areas meant I had to learn some “street smarts”. I quickly realized there are some really pretty consistent rules that criminals abide by. If you learn them, you can keep yourself safe from many of life’s criminal dangers.
The first thing you need to understand is that by far the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they should be able to trust. Most of these crimes are committed by relatives, teachers, coaches, fellow church members, neighbors or other family friends. This is why it is important to teach our children about “good touches” and “bad touches” that apply to everyone they encounter. Very, very few total strangers are actually a danger to our children.
Having said that, there are a few basic concepts children should be taught to keep them safe. The most important is that when they are with you or another adult, they should always have you in sight. Very young children should be taught to always be touching you, especially in a parking lot. As your child gets older, start sending them on a quick errand to the next isle (for a loaf of bread) and then come right back. You, of course, are actually still watching them at this point. Later in childhood (the exact age will vary with each child) they can go into a small store with a sibling or friend while you wait outside. (Meaning no one can take them out of the store without you noticing it.) Eventually, they can go from store to store with a sibling or friend and meet you at an appointed place and time.
This brings us to the second safety rule. In general, you are always safest when there are other people around. Criminals will generally not grab multiple children at once. Streets with a lot of people walking on them are generally safer from mugger attacks than streets that are dark and empty. Even if something bad were to happen, having other “good” people around usually means there are people to help you recover from the situation.
The exception to this rule is really large crowds or a group of people that looks like they are looking for trouble. As they used to say in New York, “Run away from the gunshots, not towards them!” If a group of people or a situation makes you feel uncomfortable, it is okay to cross the street to avoid the situation. It is important to eventually teach your child to trust his gut feeling. While the vast majority of people will never hurt you, an occasional person may have bad intentions. Teach your child it is fine to be more cautious when around that person or in that situation.
Another really good thing to keep in mind is to never get close enough to a stranger asking for help for them to grab you, especially if they are in a car. If they do, kick and scream like crazy. This applies no matter how old you are! I recently heard an interview stating that something like 85% of children who are grabbed escape if they kick and scream. If they get grabbed, teach them to scream, “You are not my Mommy” (which will lead to some family jokes as your kids get older!) or just be as loud as possible about the person needing to let them go.
Should your child get lost or separated from you, the safest person for them to ask for help is another mother with children. Let’s face it, the last thing most mothers would want is to steal someone else’s child – they have enough of their own! If there is no mother in sight, then they should find the oldest lady they can find – preferably one with very grey hair! Unfortunately, in our society, a uniformed person or a salesperson is not always someone who can be trusted. A mother will almost always make sure your child gets back to you.
As your child becomes a teen, an added rule needs to be to avoid getting drunk or doing drugs. Many high school and college incidents happen when one or more of the participants is inebriated. Staying sober will also help your child stay safe. (Not to mention the various scriptural and legal issues!)
You may have other safety items you add, including a cheap pre-paid telephone with your number pre-programmed for your child to have on them when vacationing in a crowded city. You may set up a location for everyone to meet if you become separated (this works well in an amusement park with older children and teens.). You may have a secret code word for people to use if they pick up your child without warning to let your child know it is okay with you.
Perhaps the most important skill to teach your child is for her to always tell you if someone or some situation makes her feel unsafe. Children often have very good gut instincts about people. If someone makes them afraid, there may be a good reason. It is at least worth exploring more thoroughly.
Once you have trained your child to be safe, it is time to work on their ability to reach out to others. They need to learn to feel comfortable reaching out to all sorts of people who need to be shown God’s love. They need to be able to tell strangers about the Gospel as they grow into their teens and adulthood.
One thing I have realized is that the ability to feel comfortable around all types of people often comes from having spent a lot of time with them. I was blessed to grow up in a church family where my preacher was born missing one arm and the other arm was very small. Because he was the preacher, we were allowed to curiously stare at him while he preached. He made sure he reached out for us to shake his few fingers so we had an opportunity to touch the small arm. He knew that by exposing us, he was teaching us to accept those with physical differences.
Children are naturally curious. They want to know why someone is different from them. They are curious how the difference happened, what it means the person can and can’t do and if they will end up with the same difference at some point. As adults, we often forget that what we think is common knowledge isn’t common knowledge to a small child. They don’t understand that the man was in a bad car wreck and that is why he is paralyzed. They don’t know the woman was born without an arm.
If you regularly have different types of people in your home, worship with them or volunteer with them, your child will have plenty of time to explore their curiosity. Generally, family friends are good about answering questions a stranger might not want to address. There will be plenty of opportunities to look at the difference so they no longer even notice it. That really is the first step in learning to treat everyone the same – no longer even noticing the differences. The person just becomes a person.
Whenever possible, encourage your child to have friends who are different from them. They may be from a different country or just a different part of the country. Maybe they are in a different social circle or have a disability. This is especially easy to arrange when you are at the play date stage. Playing with a variety of children will allow your child learn how to best interact with different people.
One of my good friends when I was growing up was born blind. I learned a lot about how to help her and the things some people thought were helpful that actually hurt her feelings. (Like shouting – she would always get frustrated as she wasn’t deaf at all!) I learned some Spanish from my friend whose family had escaped from Cuba. I learned a little sign language from friends who were deaf. I even learned what it was like to be abandoned by your family and left at a children’s home.
All of these friends taught me valuable lessons about how to treat a variety of people in a way that made them feel valued. I now feel comfortable with all sorts of people without the urge to stare or treat them like they are different. More importantly, I can easily start a conversation with a stranger. This allows me to share God’s love with them.
Another great way to expose your child to a variety of people is to entertain them in your home. Long dinners shared together allow people to tell about the things that interest them or are important to them. Our family regularly entertained people from all over the world. We learned that we had many interests in common even if they were from thousands of miles away.
Ministry and mission work are other ways to teach your child how to reach out and help people they do not know. If they regularly help serve meals to homeless people, they will soon learn that every person has a story. Some are good and some are bad, but everyone has a desire to be loved. The type of love that only God can provide. Your child’s willingness to minister to these people (whoever they are) helps show God’s love for them. Your child may be the first person who has shared the story of God with them. Your child may make an eternal difference in the lives of the strangers they meet in the future.
Does your child need to learn how to help keep herself safe from danger? Absolutely! Don’t forget to also teach her about the joys of meeting strangers and sharing God’s Words with them. The two really can happen together.