How I Taught My Children to Talk to Strangers

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens is an author and educator. Her business card says “Helping Adults Help Children.” Her latest book and other writings are here. I love what she says about kids and strangers.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I want to tell you about how I taught my son and my daughter to talk to strangers:

When they were in 1st grade and kindergarten, I found a wonderful program across town, with creative teachers and a strong, smart philosophy.  Their school began at the same time as the one where I taught, and was the opposite direction from our home.  This was in the 1970s, and there weren’t any laws then against children going around town by themselves. Who could imagine such a thing?  I still can’t!

The bus stop where they left for school was in our pleasant community and the one where they got off was just 2 blocks from the school.  However, I was concerned because there was a very busy street to cross on the way from the bus to the school.

So we practiced going to school.  I took them on the bus to school several times.  The first time I was in charge, and showed them how to find their stop, when to ring the driver’s bell, and where and how to get off.  I told them that while they were on the bus, the driver was the grownup to talk with if they needed help.  After that first time I was passive and they were in charge of taking me to school. The children were alert and didn’t miss any cues.

Each time we got to the bad intersection we practiced finding someone — a stranger — to help them cross the street.  We did this about a dozen times.  I told them, “Before you ask someone to take you across the street you must agree on the person. No arguing, just find someone you both think will be good, and say, “Mister, (or Ma’am) would you please take us across the street?”

First I went across, to watch them make their decisions.  And they didn’t choose by race, they didn’t choose by gender, or age, or body type. They chose by . . . vibe.  As I watched them I thought, “Young dogs go about by themselves, and so do young turtles, And my kids could make even better decisions.”  There never was a bit of trouble with their going to school in the three years they went there all on their own. That’s the story.

Here are my qualifications for it: I am, by profession, an early childhood educator.  I taught young children for some 14 years, and their teachers and parents (at Pacific Oaks College, San Francisco State, Fresno State, and Sonoma State, as well as keynoting conferences and seminars in more than 30 states and in Europe and Asia).  I get to tell grownups what’s best for children.  And I want to state, unequivocally, that being under an adult’s eyes all day every day for 15 years is NOT good for children.

I first told this story when, during the question and answer period after a keynote speech I delivered, I was asked a question which assumed that I taught my children NOT to talk to strangers.  I replied:

When I’m in trouble, out in the world, I ask a stranger for help.  Not every stranger, but one who seems to me to be a good person.  This hasn’t ever backfired on me, and so I feel that it’s a good  practice.  I want my children to have the same confidence in their ability to make requests of other people and that doing so is sensible.  So I taught them TO ask, and I’m glad I did.

Short and simple: Teach and trust. And as I always say (even on Nancy Grace): You can TALK to anyone, you just can’t go OFF with anyone. – L.

Can you please help me cross the street?

Can you please help me cross the street?

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39 Responses to How I Taught My Children to Talk to Strangers

  1. bob m March 13, 2015 at 9:23 am #

    I grew up in NYC, so always plenty of adults around. One thing I learned fairly early was that adults were just like us kids – not all were nice or helpful or friendly – but most were.

    I did not always get help when I asked, but I also didn’t get any negative reactions in a threatening or unsettling way. I was generally helped or ignored. I appreciated the former and got over the latter.

  2. Michelle March 13, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    I love this! What a perfect solution to concern about kids crossing the street!

  3. Michelle March 13, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    My oldest two kids just flew to Seattle to visit their mother. They haven’t flown in a few years, and it’s their first time since getting too old for the “unaccompanied minor” program, so they’re completely on their own. My daughter doesn’t like to ask for help because she thinks she “should” be able to do things on her own. Which is fine until she’s completely lost and wandering around, refusing to ask for directions. So I told her, “Anna, you’re practically an adult now. You shouldn’t need any help navigating the airport. So don’t read any signs, don’t listen to any announcements, and definitely don’t ask for help! Just close your eyes and pick a direction and go!”

    I think she got my point. 😛 Growing up isn’t just about being able to do things for yourself. It’s about understanding when and how to get help when you need it.

  4. Crystal March 13, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    I like this idea.

  5. Warren March 13, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    The whole not talking to strangers could be one of the causes of so much paranoia and problems of today. All those kids that were not only told to never talked to strangers, and punished for talking to strangers, have all grown up into adults that do not talk to strangers.

    I also wonder how many times not talking to strangers was the direct reason why children remain lost for a lot longer than needed, or even lost in the first place. My great grandma always said, “As long as you have a tongue in your head, you will never be lost.”.

  6. bryan March 13, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    I *make* my kids talk to strangers. They ask if they can pet a dog I tell them it’s not my dog you have to ask the person walking the dog. I make them order their own food. I give them money to buy things, especially desserts when we’re at McDonald’s or something like that.

    My youngest daughter doesn’t much like rides, but we go to amusement parks and my oldest wants to ride with me. I’ve seen my youngest making new ‘friends’ with people waiting for the ride to end.

    There’s no way I’m doing all that for them, even at 9 and 6 they are able to do it themselves.

  7. caiti March 13, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    I love this! One day 3 years ago my son cane home from daycare and said something about not taking to strangers. I said, “oh, you mean DO talk to strangers, your teacher must have said it wrong.” And since i made it a cut-and-dried, simple miscommunication and not a matter of differing value systems, he took it to heart. He’s naturally outgoing but since then he talks to EVERYBODY. To the extent that, now that he’s 6, it’s starting to get a little awkward, lol! Frequently we will be paying at a store and by the time I’m ready to leave he’s in the middle of a conversation with the cashier and is holding up the line! But I never worry about him not knowing how to get help. And any kidnapper would be so sick of the non stop chatter that the kidnapper wouldn’t be able to take him a half block before sending him home!

  8. Beverly March 13, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    My neighbors and I were together talking about this topic, among many others, last night. One mom told us how she summed it up quickly and concisely to her kids, “If you need help, pick your stranger. Use caution if a stranger picks you.” Obviously, there are helpful strangers who may see a child needing assistance and offer it. She wasn’t saying refuse, but that children can and should use their instincts.

  9. Papilio March 13, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    @Caiti: But by then he will be in the middle of a conversation with the kidnapper and refuse to leave… 😀

  10. lollipoplover March 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    “I want my children to have the same confidence in their ability to make requests of other people and that doing so is sensible.”

    In order to develop critical problem solving skills, kids need to recognize WHEN they need to ask for help. Yes, it’s great to be self-sufficient and independent, but we will all need help at some point in our lives, and knowing when and how to ask for that help is a great life lesson to teach. Well done, Sydney!

    And you can’t just give them that confidence. That’s what I see so many young adults struggling with- someone has been doing something for them for so long(driving them vs. letting them walk because “there’s so many weirdos out there”, cooking for them vs. letting them cook). I see an anxiety epidemic among tweens and teens who struggle with basic tasks(they were told were too dangerous) they are magically supposed to be able to handle, just because they’re older. But they never practiced them. Being a pedestrian and navigating roads and traffic is a critical skill. Letting them try things out, at early ages, only makes them safer.

  11. Eric S March 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Lol! I remember when my parents did the same thing for us when we were kids. We started walking to school on our own by the age of 6. By the age of 10, we were already comfortable taking public transit on our own around our city (a major city in Canada). By that age, we had already been exposed to the “world”. Homeless people, junkies, prostitutes, didn’t phase us anymore. We knew how to traverse our environment. Knew what we should do when we needed help. We didn’t think twice about going up to someone we didn’t know and ask for help. But we also knew how trust our guts. We never went off with these people, unless it was to go into a store and use their telephone. One time we got lost, and found a cop. He didn’t drive us home. We asked how to get to a street we knew. He pointed us in the right direction, and when we got there, we knew where we were, and proceeded to walk the rest of the way home. About a mile away. Popping in and out of stores looking for comics along the way. Came home, and made ourselves lunch (many parents worked during the day).

    People should remember this. Almost everyone we have ever been friends with, dated, married, cared for, etc…was, at one point in time, a STRANGER to us. No exceptions. Now if we teach our children NOT to talk to STRANGERS. How will they ever learn to make friends, to make judgement calls on people’s personalities (good people vs bad people). How will they learn to be confident to approach “strangers” when they are in need of help. To teach children not to talk to “strangers”, is like going into a lion’s den with no knowledge, experience, and equipment to help in keeping the lion’s at bay.

    As Lenore has said before, “It’s ok to talk to strangers. But it’s not ok to walk off with them.” To empower your child, is teach them how to take care of themselves. This, imo, is the best way in protecting your children. It’s not only convenient (it’s impossible to keep an eye on your kids 24/7), it’s efficient, and they retain it much more because they are required to think. This has worked for generations upon generations in the past. Why break something that isn’t broken, to try and HOPEFULLY make it better. But by the way things look for this generation, it looks like the “new way” is not helping kids much.

  12. Eric S March 13, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    @Warren: I agree. I also believe that because of this “stranger danger” mentality, that we have lost the community we once had when we were kids. When neighbors, store owners, and even random adults walking about were extra set of eyes and hands for our parents. Which included protection, AND discipline (not physical). We learned early that we couldn’t get away with doing things we weren’t suppose to. It taught us respect and consideration.

  13. Andrea March 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    This is awesome.

  14. lollipoplover March 13, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    I think if more parents taught stranger navigation vs. stranger danger, we’d have a lot less of these “child lurings” warnings that are often just motorists asking for directions (at least the last 4 that have been on our local news).
    But the child is so genuinely frightened at being talked to by a stranger and paranoia runs rampant.

  15. Dee March 13, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    So well put! Sadly, I get the feeling that in many communities if a child asked for helping crossing the street, it could give a busybody even more of an in to “do the right thing.” I’m thankful I don’t live in that kind of community. My son could definitely have done this when he was younger.

  16. ARM March 13, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    I think this is great, but sadly pedestrians are so scarce on the ground where I live you could probably wait hours for an adult to come along and help a child cross. But I totally agree on talking to strangers: “Don’t talk to strangers” is a bizarre (and rude) rule to teach.

  17. Warren March 13, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    I find myself having conversations with small children almost everytime we are doing the weekly groceries. Kids are naturally friendly, and I will never not respond/reply to a child that starts a conversation. Maybe one in ten the parents give me the stink eye, or shuttle the child away, but for the most part it is fun. Other than enjoying the interaction myself, I like to believe it teaches kids not all strange men are scary.

    When my youngest was 8 she wanted to go to Tim’s for a hot chocolate. About a ten minute walk. My mother in law started in on stranger danger and the crap, including “Remember, if someone bothers you to look for someone like your mom to help.”. LOL, to my pride, she told her grandma that she looks for someone like dad because dads can kick butt if they have to.

    I always told my kids, strangers are not dangerous. Not following your gut is dangerous.

  18. lollipoplover March 13, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    I just saw this quote and it applies so well to strangers:

    “F.E.A.R.
    has two meanings-

    Forget Everything And Run

    OR

    Face Everything And Rise

    The choice is yours.”

  19. Jenn March 13, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    Funny story: My mother was raised in the South Bronx in the 1930’s-1940’s. She lived in a Jewish/ Irish/ neighborhood where children were expected to navigate their way to schools, the library, the park, various shops and home again. However– they were NOT under any circumstances to cross a particularly dangerous boulevard by themselves. A boy had been hit and killed by a streetcar, so they were supposed to approach an adult and ask that individual to help them cross the street. My mother used to tell a story in which she approached a young man and asked “Mister, will you cross me?” The young man looked down, and completely perplexed, did the Sign of the Cross on her.

    I love this post, and am working with my seven year old to remind him that he CAN talk to strangers, but as Lenore says–never go off with them or accept gifts.

  20. Ada March 13, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    I would be honored if a young person asked me to help them cross the street! What a nice story.

  21. margo March 13, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    I did the same thing. After all, if she gets lost and/or needs help, she will need to talk to someone she doesn’t know. I did work with her on exploring how she might choose someone to ask for help, but it really often does come down to our sense of the person, and while the uncertainty of this may seem scary, we humans actually are pretty good with our intuition, if we learn to pay attention to it. Also, I am not a naive “Pollyanna” … I have been a CPS social worker, currently volunteer for victim services, and have been a victim of crime. I simply believe that the best way to keep our kids safe in the world is to help them develop competency in navigating it … At a developmentally appropriate level for that child.

  22. Mandy March 13, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

    I love this story. My 2-1/2 year old starts conversation with random people every time we go out. Lately he will see someone and ask, “Who’s that?” I suggest he introduce himself and ask their name. We have met a lot of interesting people that way.

    I traveled in China with another Caucasian woman and we asked strangers for help multiple times each day, including hitching a ride in a giant dump truck when our bikes broke down. Never had a problem. Most strangers are nice; all my friends and my husband started out that way.

  23. Eric S March 13, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    I like that quote lollipoplover.

  24. Warren March 13, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    Screw having a kid ask you to help them across the road! I thought they were suppose to offer to help us old timers across the road.

  25. Margot March 13, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

    I was running 20 minutes late to collect my 11 year old daughter and her friend after dance class the other night, so they were left sitting on a bench on the main street of our smallish town as it was growing dark. In the car on the way home, she told me that as they were sitting there, a man walked past, nodded his head, said “Hello girls” (to which they replied “hello”) and kept walking. A woman walking behind him then approached and cautioned them against talking to strangers. My daughter’s response to me; “But SHE was a stranger, Mum.”

  26. Emily March 13, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    This seems appropriate here:

    http://themiddlestsister.com/2011/08/23/strangers/

  27. Steve March 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

    There is something insidious about Stranger Danger, since we all know who the “most likely” abusers and rapists are. It’s as if by throwing suspicion on Strangers nobody will talk about the most likely culprits.

  28. SOA March 14, 2015 at 8:29 am #

    I think teaching kids how to approach people is a good skill. My husband does not have this skill. His mother never taught him or his social anxiety prevents it. I probably do blame his mother. She never threw him parties or got him in activities or traveled with him, so that probably is why he has social anxiety.

    He would bleed to death before he approached a stranger to ask to borrow their phone to call 911. Its infuriating. I always have to be the one to go up and ask for something or talk to someone.

    However, one part of her story bothered me a bit. I don’t know if relying on strangers for help crossing the street daily is a good set up. Because what if one day they can’t find anyone to help them and then end up being late for school? Its okay to rely on strangers help now and again, but setting yourself up to be at a stranger’s mercy daily for your routine might not always work out. Just does not seem practical. Because you will run into people who just won’t help for whatever reason and then what?

  29. Joy March 14, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    I was just at my local Fry’s (Kroger’s) yesterday when a girl, about 7, asked her mom what my name was. Mom said, “ask her.” Girl, “I can’t,” said very quietly. Mom encouraged her, and then I encouraged her. She finally quietly asked my name. I enthusiastically answered, “Miss Joy.” She beamed at me and then mom w/a smile. I then asked her what her name was. She told me, “Courtney.” I told her what a beautiful name that was. All the while I was thinking, “Way to go mom!” Courtney was so proud of herself in a shy, but cute way. I was different, you see, because I was in a Power Wheelchair. I was a stranger, now I’m not!

  30. Sara Heard March 15, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    Love this. I’ve talked to my six-year-old about doing the same thing when it’s time for her to walk to the school bus alone (next year in second grade I think… if I can convince her father). We haven’t tried it out yet, but she’s REALLY eager to walk to the pizzeria and pick up a slice by herself, so we might have to try it sooner.

    What topsy-turvy world do we live in where people think asking a stranger to hold your hand across the street is the danger, and crossing the street with the crazy New York drivers who regularly fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks isn’t? I never worry about my child being out in the world talking to everyone and anyone, but the traffic is truly and legitimately terrifying.

  31. Warren March 15, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    SOA,
    You really need to get some help. Do you honestly think that they kids will stand at the corner all morning getting rejected by person after person after person? We are all not as ignorant or anti social as you. Even given the extremely remote chance that everyone they come across is a Dolly, I am pretty sure that the kids would have enough confidence to cross on their own, and not just stand their like idiots. Wow you come up with some dumb crap.

  32. SOA March 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    Warren: Don’t make assumptions about me. I would under most cases stop and help kids if they needed it. Only time I couldn’t was if I was in a super big hurry or had my hands full. That has nothing to do with paranoia though and more to do with my busy life.

    In this day and age, most people are rushing about most of the time especially on weekday mornings and don’t always have time to stop and help some kids cross the street. So I would not wanna set my kids up to depend on finding someone to help them every single morning.

    I find being tardy for school inexcusable so I would not set up anything to chance to rely on others for them being on time for school.

    If they can cross the street themselves, then they should just be doing that in the first place. Why even involve strangers? I teach my kids to watch for cars and cross at crosswalks with the light and therefore you are getting across eventually without anyone helping you, just wait for the light.

  33. Sara Heard March 15, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    @SOA and @Warren: Maybe your “failure to communicate” is due to different types of neighborhoods. I know that where I live (Brooklyn NY high-density residential neighborhood) during the morning rush there are multiple people crossing at every corner during every light change, so it sounds silly to think the child would wait and wait and wait and find nobody to help. On the other hand, the traffic really IS scary and dangerous, and just “wait for the green light” is not sufficient to ensure safety. Plenty of drivers fail to obey the red lights, so a green light doesn’t ensure safety. If we could all take a moment to imagine that not everybody lives in the same kind of place we do, it might stop us from reacting with such hostility to other commenters.

  34. Rachel March 15, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    This is terrific. We tell our kids to ask for help from a mom or a dad if they need help and no one they know is around.

    There’s always the corollary that if a strange adult comes up and asks for help from them — nope. No adult needs help from a 7 year old. Ever. S/he can find that help from another adult.

  35. Beth March 16, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

    I have 6 kids from ages 19yrs to 10months. I raised my kids yo talk to strangers. It’s nice to get to know people in your neighborhood, it makes old people happy. Teaches kids a sense of community . And I am glad I did, 4 yrs ago I was in the beginning of what would become a very nasty custody battle. My ex refused to return the younger kids and kept them in the basement while I was being served. My (then), 11 yrs old snuck out through a window, ran to a strangers house and asked for help getting back to me. I will be forever greatful for this.

  36. joe z March 20, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

    Several years ago I had just crossed a street and when I reached the other side there was a little girl. She sad, “Mister, will you cross me the street?” The local elementary school was at the opposite corner of the block so I figured he was on her way home. I said sure, took her hand, waited for traffic to clear and a bit more (call it a teaching moment) and I “crossed her the street.” No biggee.

  37. Vince L March 23, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    While visiting in Paris, France last week, specifically one of the art museums, I made a comment to my daughter (19 years old) that one the of bears near the cafe looks like a Coke bear. I heard across from the counter “Yeah, it sort of does.” It was a young boy and (probably 10ish?) and his younger sister sitting there waiting for mom to get their food/snacks. We four then had a great conversation till their mom showed up. We headed out saying our goodbyes, No panic from the mom that her kids were talking to strangers. No panic from the kids talking to strangers. We actually had a good chat about the museum and things we saw and liked. Turns out they were from NY. Nice to see that some parents and kids don’t freak out.

  38. GSSamar March 24, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

    I grew up in the US (in the 1970s), and while in typical 1970s fashion I had a lot more freedom than today’s suburban American kids, I was taught not to talk to strangers except policemen. When I was 6, my grandmother took me and my sister tot eh beach at Coney Island and I got lost. Since I was told not to talk to strangers and didn’t see a policeman (I didn’t think to transfer the role to a life guard on the beach), I sat down in the sand, put my head on my knees, and cried. Of course, this way it took a long time (in my memory, forever) for my grandmother to find me.

    I have lived in Israel since 1987. Israeli friends my age remember being sent off to school at age 5 or 6 and told to “ask an Aunt or Uncle to help you cross the street.” Aunt or Uncle was the term (and still is, but to a lesser extent) for an adult stranger.

  39. Ken March 25, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    This adheres to the principles of teaching:

    First I’ll show you how to do it, with explanations on why.
    Second I’ll help you as you do it.
    Third I’ll watch you do it with no assistance. Repeat steps only as necessary.

    Use this method and your student will be competent in no time.