By Sifu Nancy Tei
When I hear the phrase “Don’t talk to strangers,” I cringe. As a martial arts instructor I have spent years educating children on street safety and anti-kidnapping. My experience has taught me that “Don’t talk to strangers” is wrong, or at the very least, incomplete.
Most parents I know have done little to prepare their children for “Stranger Danger”-type situations. After all, who is a stranger? A stranger is anyone the child does not know. The world is full of strangers, yet parents regularly encourage their children to engage in friendly conversation with waiters, cashiers, and baristas, just to name a few. Consequently, if you ask your younger child “Who is a stranger? What does a stranger look like?” they will probably say something like “They wear a lot of black and are sneaky.” They just don’t think of the local Olive Garden hostess as a stranger.
Children must develop social skills in order to succeed and feel confident navigating our society. Therefore, I don’t think the solution is to shield our children from placing their own orders at restaurants in order to uphold the integrity of the “Don’t talk to strangers” directive. It does not make sense to stunt a child’s etiquette training — a skill they will use daily — in order to protect them from the far less likely possibility of a kidnapping attempt.
Elementary-aged children should be taught to identify suspicious behavior from both strangers and known adults. For example, if a cashier asks “How are you today?” that is not much cause for concern, but if they ask “Do you ever stay at home alone?” your child should be suspicious. “No personal information,” I tell my martial arts students.
Approach every situation as a learning experience; don’t rely on tired old maxims to educate our children.
Sifu Nancy Tei teaches at California Academy of Martial Arts in Burbank.
Tweet her @burbankwingchun