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Mom Cop

The Right Way to Talk to Strangers

Let Lauren Wilkins, an N.Y.P.D. veteran and mom, show you how she and her kids navigate stranger-danger.

We’ve all heard of “stranger danger” and the simple message that kids should never talk to strangers. But in real life, we constantly interact with people we don’t know. There are strangers we encounter regularly, such as those who live nearby. There are strangers who do something for us, like deliver our packages or make us coffee. And there are people whose lives touch ours as we move through the day, from subway riders to the homeless.

Most strangers have good intentions and connecting with them can be positive experiences, but some people are unpredictable and situations can get scary or dangerous. While we want our children to be safe, but we don’t want them to be paranoid or rude. So, if it is not realistic to instruct our children never to talk to strangers, what can we tell them? Encounters with strangers are a great opportunity to teach kids how to balance being friendly with being safe. Here are some ideas for teaching your kids how to talk to strangers.

1. Be funny; be boring.

We have a great coffee shop down the block. We regularly go and the servers often banter with my kids. This feels appropriate, and I love seeing my kids joke. However, when strangers unexpectedly address them, my kids suddenly turn shy. Luckily, young kids watch for their parents' response. When someone addresses them on the sidewalk or in an elevator, show your kids how to courteously respond, while keeping a respectful distance. A wave, smile or “hello” are ways little kids can be friendly without getting too close. You can stop and chat briefly, but then keep moving. Don’t be afraid of platitudes! They are banal by definition, so the conversation won’t keep you. Once my youngest one starts chatting, she will stay indefinitely, so I also like to be ready with a bland reason to move on such as, “Oh, the light is green,” or “Let’s get home for dinner.” Afterwards, I think it is important to talk to your children and explain the difference between people you may see often and speak to briefly, and people you really know.

2. Know your boundaries.

Sometimes strangers, even well-meaning ones, will get too close. Take time to think through your boundaries and what types of behaviors are not acceptable to you. For instance, some people peek into strollers and pat babies. My child had curly hair, and strangers have tried to touch it. I have seen people offer a high-five, a gift and ask a lot of questions. Are you comfortable with any or all of these interactions? If you know your boundaries, then you can have alternatives to offer in the moment.

2. Be their voice.

We all want to nurture our children’s voices, but it doesn’t have to be with strangers. If we encounter an overly friendly stranger, say in an elevator or on the sidewalk, I will jump in and answers questions for my kids. I will encourage my children to say thank you to a compliment, how old they are or if they like school, but if a stranger asks where we live, I will jump in with, “Nearby,” before my kids start to rattle off our address, which they have been striving to remember. Would they like a candy? “No, thank you,” I respond knowing how hard it is for small children to resist the draw of a treat. (We’ve also been offered stickers and money.) Then, in a quiet moment after the interaction, I will explain to my kids that we don’t share food, our address or whatever the item was with people we don’t know.

3. Hold hands.

I like holding hands with my kids. It’s reassuring and also gives me the option to pull my child away or step forward between her and the stranger if something unexpected happens. I do believe that most people mean well and, frankly, it’s cheering to have a positive interaction with a stranger. These ideas just give you some space to react, so you can be courteous, friendly and safe.

4. Trust your (mom) gut.

I like to approach situations with sensitivity, compassion and my eyes open. Even while you are interacting, observe what is going on. This is not the moment to be hesitant. If someone touching your baby or child makes you uncomfortable, ask them to stop. Consider saying that your baby is just getting over a cold. (Yes, it’s a little white lie, but it will help redirect the touch … no one likes germs!) If the person doesn’t stop, you can move your child away. And if you feel uncomfortable, or the stranger starts to act erratic or violent, leave. Don’t worry about being rude. You are entitled to act on your fear and get yourself and your child away safely. You’ll also be teaching your kids to trust their instincts, and there will be plenty of other opportunities to teach them to be friendly.

Lauren Wilkins is a counterterrorism expert who has investigated threats to New York City by a horde of terrorist groups, from Al Qaeda abroad to Islamic State supporters in Brooklyn. From 2008 to 2018, she was a terrorism analyst with the N.Y.P.D. and served on assignment to the F.B.I.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.