How many kids are actually abducted each year by strangers? What is our reaction to it, and are we going too far? Are we teaching common sense or a fundamental terror of the world?

It seems like we hear about it all the time: The girl walking home from school, never seen again. The boy at a soccer game who goes to the bathroom and never returns. The child stolen from her own backyard, front yard or local playground.

I don't know about you, but as a parent, my mind usually goes like this: "I don't care if I'm 'irrational.' I'd rather be irrational than have my child hurt. Period. Right?"

Maybe. But am I really protecting my child, and is that really the best method? First of all, let's explain "stranger danger." You all remember it, I'm sure: Don't talk to strangers. Don't get in the car with strangers. Don't take candy from strangers. If somebody starts following you, walk or run to the nearest adult. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It was taught to all of us forever.

But how many kids are really abducted each year by strangers, and is it accurate to make our kids think that strangers are more dangerous than acquaintances?

The facts

According to this website, which cites this page of the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice, relatives are significantly more "dangerous" to children than strangers according to these child abduction statistics:

"Of all children under age 5 murdered from 1976-2005:

31 percent were killed by fathers
29 percent were killed by mothers
23 percent were killed by male acquaintances
7 percent were killed by other relatives
3 percent were killed by strangers"

When you think of all the children in the U.S., 115 is really not very many. Not that those kids don't matter, but the odds are clearly low that my child will be abducted by a total stranger.

And, according to this 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, "there were an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings, defined as abductions perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed." When you think of all the children in the U.S, 115 is really not very many. Not that those kids don't matter, but the odds are clearly low that my child will be abducted by a total stranger.

So, based on these statistics, it appears the whole "stranger danger" mentality needs to be rethought. While of course our children need to be taught how to trust their guts when it comes to strangers (I always tell my kids "you don't need to talk to anybody. If you don't like them, leave. Refuse them. Tell them to call your mother."), they also need to know how to handle acquaintances that may behave inappropriately.

They need to know never to go anywhere with people unless I have explicitly instructed it, even if they know the people offering.

Since most crimes against children are committed by people known to child, I need to teach my kids to recognize when they are uncomfortable and respond to it by talking to me or their teachers. They need to know never to go anywhere with people unless I have explicitly instructed it, even if they know the people offering. On the other hand, my kids need to know that many strangers are "good strangers," like police officers, fire fighters, people at the checkout who strike up a chat. We don't need to freak out in the presence of the old dude at church who comes over to say "hello."

Common sense and intuition

I need my kids to become discerning, thinking humans, who can assess situations and their inner selves and make decisions accordingly. Teaching my kids that all strangers are suspect until proven otherwise is not only irrational (because the fact is most strangers are not child abductors), but it's a recipe for a seriously socially inept human. If I instill a fundamental terror of strangers in my child, how is she ever going to succeed in new situations, jobs, social engagements?

And ultimately, as terrifying as this is, in the critical moment of decision making, it is only my child who will have the ability to respond on his feet and get out of the situation. My job is to empower my kids to handle situations as best they can, not shelter them irrationally until they're totally ill-equipped for the world.

The thought of my children being exposed to danger is breathtakingly disturbing, but at some point we have to realize our power as parents has limits, and the best thing we can do is put as much power as we can in the hands of our kids.

This is not simple, and the thought of my children being exposed to danger is breathtakingly disturbing, but at some point we have to realize our power as parents has limits, and the best thing we can do is put as much power as we can in the hands of our kids. To me, this means not simply regurgitating the rhetoric that was fed me as a child (Stranger Danger), but rather doing research on what's really happening and preparing them for that.

Talking to them openly about appropriate versus inappropriate adult behavior, asking them often, "Has anything made you feel uncomfortable lately," constantly reaffirming that they have intuition and they should trust it, and if anything feels wrong, it probably is, no matter who the person is.

The goal is always to empower children for life, not disable them with irrational fear. Humans are mostly good. Children should know that. But any suspicion to the contrary is real and valid and should be respected, too.

As parents, we think we can protect our kids 100 percent of the time. Or we want to, at least. But as hard as it is to let go when necessary, ultimately the power has got to be given to our children. Ultimately, they must be taught to think, act and live for themselves.

Their entire lives depend on it.

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