The 'stranger danger' message isn't protecting our children from abuse

We need to teach children how to differentiate between threatening situations and threatening people, whether those people are familiar or not.

Recently, Daybreak performed an 'experiment' to see if children would leave a public park with someone they don't know. We have a clean link to the Daily Mail piece here. We have removed photographs from this link, as we are concerned about the ethical nature of an experiment that pixelates the adult 'stranger' but not the children who were involved.

Some of the children offered to help the ‘stranger’ in finding his lost dog - he was no doubt plausible, and will have been able to relate to the children in order to engage them in this experiment. Some of the children went with him, some started to and then changed their minds, and some were called back by their mothers before they were out of sight.

Children are compliant by nature.  We tell children that they should listen to adults, that they must do what adults tell them to do, and they must respond promptly to instructions.

Unless they are a ‘stranger’.

Now, I don't know about you, but I taught my child about stranger danger when she was quite small. When she was three years old, we went to see Father Christmas, and when he asked, “Have you been good this year?”, she responded by looking at me and whispering, “You said I shouldn't talk to strangers.” Cue much embarrassment by the jolly man in the red suit, and motherly pride that my teaching was having an impact.

How wrong I was.

Not long after that, I attended some training for my job called Protective Behaviours (PB). Now, as far as I'm concerned, PB should form the basis of all supportive work with children. Unfortunately, although schools teach about safety, not all of them discuss the intricacies of those physiological responses that can alert us; not just to danger, but to something ‘not quite right’.

Protective Behaviours has two themes, both simple and self-explanatory but needing a little expansion:

We all have the right to feel safe, all of the time.

Do most children know what feeling 'safe' feels like? Not in my experience. I've worked with many children (schools, children's services, women's services) and often, they have no idea what feeling safe means, as no-one taught them.

Children don't know what it means to feel safe. Have we absolved ourselves of the responsibility for teaching our children what it is to feel safe? 

Children need to be taught about risk, managing risk and being safe. Teaching them about safety means talking about feelings and emotions, and how those affect our physiological responses – something as simple as ‘tummy butterflies’ indicating that we are excited, nervous or anxious, for instance. Indeed, ignoring our physiological responses when we are unsafe is an issue for both children and adults. We ignore those 'early warning signs' for many reasons, one of them being mistrust in our body responses because we don't understand them. We don’t understand them, in turn, because nobody teaches us to.

Once a child understands what it is to feel safe, we can then talk about what to do when they don't.

 

Nothing is too awful, or too small, that we cannot talk to someone about it.

We all understand the 'awful'. We know that children are physically, sexually and emotionally abused (most often by those close to them) and neglected by adults who should care for them.

The 'too small' relates to minor issues that adults often dismiss: name-calling in the playground, feeling that they haven't got any friends, worrying about homework - all of which can cause children to feel anxious, worried or scared and therefore unsafe.

Protective Behaviours works on the basis that a child can talk to someone who makes them feel safe. Because without knowing what 'safe' is, children may not talk to anyone.

Once children understand how their physiology helps them understand their emotions, they can get help to be safe. Arbitrary decisions based on 'strangers' or people close to them are useless - in fact, they could be dangerous. This is because strangers are often those people who can help: a voice on a helpline, a social worker, a police officer, a support worker. How do we teach children to differentiate between 'adults who will help keep them safe' and 'strangers'? Without giving them the skills to understand their own right to safety and what it feels like, we can't.

 

This post isn't to say that we shouldn't teach children about stranger danger because the risk is low. Teaching children to differentiate between 'unsafe' and 'safe' adults gives them a space to talk, to be believed, and protects them more than any blanket 'don't talk to strangers' message ever will.

Children are not responsible for keeping themselves safe; that is the job of adults. Persisting with the notion that we can keep children safe by repeating the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ line is misleading and unhelpful.

We need to be having open and honest conversations with our children about their ‘early warning signs’, what it means to feel safe, who they can trust and where to get help from - and at the same time, we should be talking about those who do abuse children, as that is our responsibility too.

The biggest concern is that those conversations seem curiously lacking.

End Victimisation & Abuse are a women's collective. As survivors of stalking and domestic abuse, they prefer to remain anonymous. Find out more at everydayvictimblaming.com.

 

A girl screams as police officer Mike Fuller demonstrates how quickly a child can be kidnapped on Kid's Safety Day in California. Image: Getty
Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage