Child Safety: Stranger Danger Warning Needs Updating

'Stranger Danger' used to be the mantra parents taught their kids to keep them safe. But now we're learning that strangers aren't the main problem - children are usually harmed by people they already know. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks child safety with a roundtable of experts and parents.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and their savvy advice. And today, we want to talk about a story that's made headlines this week. After an agonizing week searching for kidnapped teen Hannah Anderson, she was found and then reunited with her family in California. Anderson was abducted earlier this month by a family friend, a close family friend, known to her as Uncle Jim. And she was found by a group of strangers who were riding horses in Idaho.

This story flips conventional crime prevention on its side. Many parents tell their children to beware of strangers. But the fact is that the vast majority of crimes against kids, especially sexual abuse, are perpetrated by someone the child knows. With us to talk about this is Phil Lerman, dad of one, stepdad of two and former producer of the TV program "America's Most Wanted." Michelle Boykins is a communications director at the National Crime Prevention Council. And Dani Tucker is one of our regular parenting contributors. She's a mom of two, an office administrator, and a fitness instructor. Welcome to all three of you.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

MICHELLE BOYKINS: Thank you.

PHIL LERMAN: Thanks for having us.

HEADLEE: Let me begin with you, Phil, because I would imagine your job scared the heck out of you. You produced "America's Most Wanted" so your work life was filled with these terrifying stories about what could happen to kids. And as a parent that's horrifying. But also, to a certain extent, it must've taught you about how you can protect kids. How did you teach your own children coming away from what you learned on the show?

LERMAN: Well, my stepdaughter was, I think, 11 when we started getting a lot of stories at "America's Most Wanted," we started focusing very heavily on missing child stories. My poor stepdaughter, every night I'd come home and she had to find out about every kid who went missing in America and what they did wrong and what happened. And she was the only kid in her grade who knew what do you do when you get locked in the trunk of a car.

HEADLEE: Punch out the tail light, right?

LERMAN: Very good. See, your dad taught you well. And that's the point. People are afraid, sometimes, to teach their kids about safety 'cause they say, oh, I don't want to scare my kid. You're not scared because you know that, because you have that image in your mind, it's empowering. And that's what John Walsh always taught us and taught our audience was if you teach kids about safety, it doesn't scare them, it empowers them. And that's the hardest thing for parents - I don't want to scare my kid. I don't want them to go through the world terrified. But I used to go to the ballgame with John Walsh and his kids and this is a man who's...

HEADLEE: ...John Walsh is the host of "America's Most Wanted."

LERMAN: Sorry. Yes. And his oldest child was murdered - kidnapped and murdered when he was six years old. And you would think that that father wouldn't let his kids get two inches from him. But his kids walked around the ballpark and they were very free in their movements and he said it's because I taught them. I taught them to be street smart. I made them feel comfortable.

HEADLEE: Well, Michelle, you know, stranger danger is something I remember as a kid growing up in grade school. That used to be the catchphrase. I remember it from the movie "Kindergarten Cop." This is how you avoid potentially dangerous situations. Somebody you don't know, you stay away from them. But what is the best practice now, that seems to be not the case anymore?

BOYKINS: Right. Well, what we're talking about now is that stranger danger really is a misnomer, because so often, the predators that are after your kids do try to make a connection with them, you know, before they actually grab them - try to abduct them. So they really are people they sort of known now. So what you really have to do is to talk to them about - you're not allowed to go off with anyone even if you do know that person. If you're in a situation where you feel like you're in danger or you need help, you can ask for help from a trusted adult, but make sure you stay in that area. You don't go with that adult.

HEADLEE: Dani, this is a really difficult thing. I mean, your children are grown now, but I imagine if you're in danger from people that you know, if most kids get harmed in one way or another by somebody that they know, you don't want your kids to mistrust people in their lives. How do you teach them to be safe?

TUCKER: Well, my kids are almost grown. They think they're grown. I got remind them. They're almost grown. But you teach them like I've taught mine, you don't trust man, period. I always tell them, because man - people are not trust worthy all the time. They won't do...

HEADLEE: When you say men you mean capital M, not males.

TUCKER: Human, right. Not just men, any human being, because I don't want to give my kids, and I hope parents, don't want to give your kids a false sense of security. You always want to be on your guard. I don't care who you're with. I'm like Momma's crazy sometimes. Be on your guard with me. And I teach them that - I'm serious, bottom line because you just want them to be aware, to look out for everything. Like we said, this was her uncle whatever, you know, and she, probably, was not on her guard. You have a tendency not to be on your guard, you know, the kids don't. And you have to teach your kids never let your guard down, because you need to be looking for anything strange. I do believe this young lady was kind of aware...

HEADLEE: ...Hannah Anderson.

TUCKER: ...That her uncle had this - Hannah - this, you know, kind of obsession with her. So see how she was aware of that? You have got to make sure that your kids are at least aware, because if they're not aware, they won't say anything. You know, being aware - like I tell my kids, let me know. Hey, Mom, you know, the next-door neighbor, who you think is your neighbor or your friend, did such and such. You got to let me know, because you never know what people can do and what they're thinking.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, our parents are talking about keeping kids safe and the changing ways that we do that. My guests are Dani Tucker, who you just heard, mom of two. Michelle Boykins of the National Crime Prevention Council. And Phil Lerman, he's a dad of two and former producer of "America's Most Wanted." Michelle, I wanted to bring you into this because I've heard some people say, teach your kids how to know when a situation doesn't feel right. But that's kind of a vague target. How do you teach your kids that?

BOYKINS: Well, I think it's one of those things where we talk about teachable moments with your kids. And where Phil talked about telling his kids of the kids who were abducted and the things that they did right or they didn't do, you know, quite as we would suggest. Those are those moments where you talk to your kid and you tell them, look, if something starts to make you feel like the hair stands up on the back of your hand or the back of your neck, something is telling you it's not right. And you need to listen to those cues. It's also important to tell them it's OK to not be polite if it means the difference between your safety and trying to be polite because that's an adult and you're taught to respect adults.

You need to teach them that it's OK to say no, I'm not going with you. No, I don't want you to do that, because what we want them, ultimately, to know is that they have some power. They have the ability to, you know, take care of themselves and to know, when a situation isn't right, how to get out of it. And that's what we have to teach our kids. We can't be afraid to talk to them about real situations and use those teachable moments, unfortunately, they happen every single day and we hear about them in the news. Instead of turning off the news to your children, talk about what they heard on the news and tell them if you're in this situation, here's how you should react, here's what I want you to do.

HEADLEE: Phil, you know, part of this is the parents' responsibility, also. And I was struck by the case we mentioned earlier with Hannah Anderson - he killed, allegedly, both her mother and her brother and then abducted her. And many of the relatives said, you know, he did seem to have an unnatural infatuation with Hannah, but I didn't see anything weird. So what can you say to parents on when to step in, when to question the behavior of another adult or family friend or relative?

LERMAN: It's really difficult because we never want to put people in an uncomfortable situation...

HEADLEE: ...Yeah.

LERMAN: ...But if you start thinking about teaching safety to yourself and to your children, teaching it as a value rather than a conversation you're going to have. When you just said a second ago, that this is something that happens every day - that's the key to it all, is that you have to think of it as a value that you deal with every day. You would never say to your kid once, listen, you're supposed to be nice to other people. OK. Good. Check that off my parenting list. Listen, clear your plate. OK, well, I told you that once. I got to tell you that again. My daughter is 24, we're still working on that one. So if you think of safety as a value you teach every day, you bring that conversation up every day.

Every day - almost every day I say to my son, we're going to bed, and I'm tucking him in, we're reading our stories, and doing whatever we do. I say, by the way, anything happen today make you uncomfortable? Anybody do anything that made you uncomfortable? Usually, I get a lot of boring stories about, you know - Ethan told me I'm an idiot. You know, but as long as you have the conversation - you know that if anything happens that makes you comfortable, you tell your dad, right, because we always talk about these things. He's so sick of hearing that and once you get to the point where they're sick of hearing it, then you get to the point that you want to be at. Just like your teaching any other value, you've got to do it every day, every day. Kids are not that smart, their heads are really thick, you got to hit them a lot of times to get through.

HEADLEE: Well, OK. Dani, you're nodding your head there.

TUCKER: I'm with him.

HEADLEE: You have to make your kids sick of hearing about it?

TUCKER: Yeah.

HEADLEE: But when this comes to, say, cyber security or - I mean, dealing with things that - you're not watching your kid all the time on the computer and maybe...

LERMAN: ...Should be.

TUCKER: Right...

HEADLEE: ...Things are happening that they don't...

TUCKER: ...Because a lot of parents, again, you give them too much freedom in your house. You understand. You're on the Internet in my house, I'm on the Internet in my house. You understand? You have got to be involved and then stop giving them so much security, because then that's when you kind of lose them. You don't know what's going on and then you can't have the conversations that Phil was talking about because now there in their space. I don't want you over here. No. I know all of their Facebook. I know pass codes. I know who's talking to them and I will question, who is this and why is he talking to you, and where did he come from and why is he your friend? He shouldn't be. Get rid of him. You should be right there.

You should be right there, because that is the way you help your kids learn how to be safe. How to - because, like he said, they don't know. They can't identify a lot of the dangers that you can. They're kids. They're - hey, somebody's speaks, I'm going to speak. No. He's 25 years old. I don't care if he did say he's 17. Look at this man, he's not 17. So these are things that they're not always looking at, but yet they've befriended somebody. You know what I mean? Just - well, he sent me a friend request and I just accept it. How would you know that if you're not all over their Facebook and their Twitter and their Instagram. You got to get in there with them and you got to stay in there with them. There is no privacy till you grown and out my house.

HEADLEE: This is an odd thing, Michelle, because you know, there have been cases in which a child has been abducted or they've been taken away. And if they had approached a stranger, if they'd stopped at the gas station and gotten out of the car to go to a stranger, they might have been OK. But we've been teaching our kids to stay away from strangers for so long and it sounds like, you know, that's exactly what you're supposed to do on the Internet, but now we have to teach them also that if you're in a dangerous situation go to - even if it's a stranger, go find somebody else. How do you do this complicated negotiation with your kids?

BOYKINS: Well, you know, it's so difficult to be a parent these days...

HEADLEE: ...Yeah.

BOYKINS: ...You have to talk to your kids about so many different things, but we talk about acceptable strangers. You know, law enforcement is an acceptable stranger, fire - you know, fire department personnel, a store clerk, someone who can access a phone and allow you to call 911 and be safe in a public environment. Those are people that you want to point out to your kids. We talk to kids about, you know, having safe routes to and from school. When you're doing that with your kids, you walk that route with your children, you tell them - here's a good place if you're, you know, if you're feeling lost or you're feeling vulnerable to something, here's a good place to stop in and ask for help. And you always want to make sure it's a public place, it's someplace where there's a lot of people around so if something did happen, someone was trying to grab them, you can tell them to yell and scream and say I don't know this person or this person is trying to take me and I don't want to go.

HEADLEE: But Phil, this is complicated a little bit. When you're telling your kids to be aware of where they are, right? My son would be walking home from school and texting on his phone with his head down. He's not aware of what's going on around him. He's going to walk through a shortcut and be - suddenly find himself in a completely isolated area. So when your kids are sick of hearing about it, as you said, how do you get your kids to actually follow these guidelines?

LERMAN: It really - just really comes back to the idea of doing it every day. You say that your son is walking around with texting. How long did you take his phone away for once you found that.

HEADLEE: A lot, a longtime.

LERMAN: You did. There you go. How long did he - when did he want his phone back?

HEADLEE: Immediately.

LERMAN: OK. He wants it immediately. And when did he get it back?

HEADLEE: Weeks.

LERMAN: Then there's your answer for how do you teach it. You make it so huge that he would never think of doing it again. You have to make the punishment way, way greater then the - you have to make it like this is the worst thing I ever saw. A person texting on the street. You know, my daughter just moved to Bushwick, not the best neighborhood in Brooklyn...

HEADLEE: ...Right.

LERMAN: ...And she grew up in a nice neighborhood, she's not - her friends, immediately, that was the first thing they told her. They said listen, you do not walk on the street with headphones in your ears. You do not text on the street. You walk with purpose and you walk with an awareness of what's going on around you. She learned that at the age of 24 because she had to. But if I had known what you knew about your kid, I would've done the same thing.

My son, who's 11, he was dying for an e-mail address. And weeks, weeks we negotiated over this. I said, you know what? OK, you're going to get the e-mail address, but I get to know your code, I get to know your passcode and I can check it any time if you want it. If you don't want it, that's fine with me. And so, of course, that was the rule. So he's learned early on what we were just talking about earlier a second ago, these are going to be the rules for safety for you. And these are the rules that you've taught your kid. If you want to be the cool parent, if you want to be the hip parent, then you got nothing to say in this. If you're willing to be the parent who the kid is really pissed off at, that's the beginning of how you start to teach them these rules.

HEADLEE: And the other thing, Dani, I see you nodding your head over there...

TUCKER: ...I love this guy. This is my kind of parent right here.

HEADLEE: A meeting of the minds...

TUCKER: ...Yeah.

HEADLEE: Another thing is that we have to make sure that parents understand not to use the same safety techniques they learned as little kids, because the landscape's changing all the time.

TUCKER: Oh, no. It's a whole different ball game. My parents didn't have to teach me in Ward 8, when I grew up in Ward 8, to duck when I heard the bullets. I mean, you know. Now I got to teach my kids you don't run when you hear shots, you get on the ground first. And you don't get up and run till you stop hearing the shots. That's how you take a bullet in the back. Most of the kids that have died that way is because they ran when they heard the shots. Bullets fly. You get hit. You go down for - so see how we had to adjust? We have to adjust. The same way when you're going out with your friends. We're going through this thing now in Ward 8, a lot of - where the girls go missing now, 'cause a lot of them are running away or just not obeying their parents. My parents didn't have a lot of that in my time growing up in D.C. because you were still getting hooked with the left hook. I wish I would have went missing. My mom was going to kill me. So you know, you have to make that adjustment. Now my kids know I'm from old school. I will kill you.

HEADLEE: When you say about Ward 8, you're talking about Ward 8 in D.C.

TUCKER: Right. In D.C. where we live, which is working class, urban...

HEADLEE: ...Right.

TUCKER: ...Ninety percent African-American community. So you do have to adjust. It's not the D.C. I grew up in. So I had to teach my kids to survive in the D.C. that it is now. You have got to do that. You cannot apply what worked for you when you were coming up. You've got to learn and listen and pay attention and rework that theme to go with your kids for today, for 2013. This is how you have to do it. Well, Mom you didn't - you know, we used to come in when the street lights came on. My daughter has to come in way before the street lights right now.

HEADLEE: Sometimes the street lights don't come on.

TUCKER: They come on too late. And that's right. They don't come on. They come on too late and people are just too outside into too much mess, whether the street lights are on or not. So see, she doesn't get the street light rule like I did. She gets the - I see you at four. Don't be late.

HEADLEE: How old is your daughter?

TUCKER: She's 16.

HEADLEE: And she comes in at 4 p.m.?

TUCKER: If she knows what's best for her, she does. Unless she has my permission to do something else. And she does and she's a good kid, because, again, I'm not your friend, I'm your mother first.

HEADLEE: That's right.

TUCKER: I'm a mother first.

HEADLEE: All right. You can't be the cool, hip parent.

TUCKER: No. If you're being a cool, hip parent, you're not being a parent.

HEADLEE: You have to talk to your kids about this stuff until they're sick of you.

TUCKER: Exactly.

HEADLEE: Yeah. All right. I'm starting to get it. You just hear Dani Tucker, one of our regular parenting contributors. She is a mom of two. Phil Lerman is dad of one, stepdad of one, author of the book "Daditude." And Michelle Boykins, communications director at the National Crime Prevention Council. They were all here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks to all three of you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

BOYKINS: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that is our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we will talk more tomorrow.

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