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
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle