Stranger Danger: Keeping Kids Safe Without Filling Them With Fear


“Mom, I’m gonna have to call you back. Jane just spanked some guy on the playground.” I couldn’t hang up fast enough. I had just witnessed my barely-five-year-old daughter slap the backside of a man I had never seen before. His eyes immediately found mine and his hands went up in the air as if to say, “I had nothing to do with that.” I nodded apologetically and motioned for my daughter to come to the picnic table.

Totally shocked and embarrassed, I tried to quickly understand why she did what she did. Jane explained that she had been watching the dad and his son playing tag and decided to join in. She was simply “tagging” the dad. 

I immediately launched into my speech about “keeping our hands to ourselves,” especially with strangers, ESPECIALLY man-strangers. I tried to keep my explanation clear and brief. “We don’t touch strangers and we don’t let strangers touch us.” I watched the wheels spinning in her innocent head and I felt stuck. I was 90% sure this dad playing at the park with his son was a nice guy, but the issue wasn’t playing tag at the park. The issue was that my daughter felt no fear or reservation about touching a stranger. Slapping him, actually, on the butt. This was a red flag for me as a mommy, especially for me as the mom of a very friendly, fearless, young girl.

playground, stranger dangerUp until that afternoon, my daughter defined “stranger” as someone whose name she didn’t know. Her definition of “friend” was simply someone who played with or gave her attention. So, before bedtime that night, Jane and I revisited the events at the park and I took those definitions a bit deeper.  I explained that not everyone in the world is kind and not all strangers are safe to play with. My heart hurt as I shared this reality with my little girl. I kept it simple, but I was firm, too. I wrapped it up by telling her that it was not her job to know who was safe and who was not. That’s why she had a mommy. It was my job to keep her safe and vet her new friends. 

We made a new rule that night and agreed that if she wanted to play with a new friend at the park, she had to come ask mommy first. I would let her know if the friend was safe and we would go from there.

I hate that I poured a small dose of fear into my sweet girl’s heart. I know it was necessary and I know it was in love but I still hate it. I wish I could tell my kids that everyone is kind and generous and selfless and safe, but that would be a dangerous lie.

I want my kids to be wise and cautions but I don’t want them to bear the burden of having to know which stranger is safe and which to avoid. Not yet. Not at ages 7 and 5 and 2. I don’t want to rob them of the joy of making a new friend at the park or saying “hello” as we pass someone new on the street.

The world is different now than when I was five. It’s scarier, for sure. But I’m not ready to hand that reality over to my little ones just yet. Not completely, at least. For now, while I can, I will carry that heaviness for them and pray for their protection and more “mommy” wisdom for the many “big” conversations still to come.

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Amber is wife to her elementary school crush and mother to three kiddos, ages 10, 7, and 4. Having recently moved to Portland from California, Amber is embracing her “new normal” as she navigates parks in the rain (bring a towel), the line outside Pip’s Donuts (it’s worth it), and where to find good Mexican food (still searching). As bio mom to her two oldest and adoptive mom to her youngest, special needs child, Amber understands and appreciates the importance of “mommy-time." Amber is also a grad student and soon-to-be Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapist. She shares the highlights and gems of what she's learning on her Instagram: @learnandliveproject.


  1. Such a tough thing to handle! I totally get your heart behind wanting to protect your children, and it might be completely warranted to restrict them from meeting new people without you, however the idea that the world is scarier than when you were a kid is actually not true. While it feels that way due to media coverage, social media, etc – our kids are significantly safer than we were as children. Here are the stats:

    According to a report by Pacific Standard: “Between 1970 and 2009 every category of child victimization has declined by a significant percentage:

    child sexual abuse down 53 percent
    physical abuse down 52 percent
    aggravated assault down 69 percent
    robbery down 62 percent
    larceny down 54 percent

  2. I recently learned it’s better to say “tricky people” instead of stranger danger, because they may need to talk to a stranger without your permission to get help in an emergency. Also, you can advise them to ask a mom first for help if you aren’t around. Just some thoughts.

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