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Why Kids Should Learn about 'Tricky People' Instead of 'Stranger Danger'

The Short of It

Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, encourages parents to teach their kids about "tricky people" instead of "stranger danger."

The Lowdown

One mom who subscribes to Fitzgerald's method of teaching kids about people who might try to harm them is Jodie Norton, who recently wrote about a scary experience her two sons had while she was in the hospital. The mom of four says that had she not warned her kids about "tricky people," they could have been abducted.

"In a moment of what I deem foggy-thinking 'pain brain' I left my two oldest boys–CJ (10) and T-Dawg (8) outside the ER door on a bench to await our kind neighbor who said he was coming to pick them up and take them to school [sic]," Norton recounts on her blog, Time Well Spent. "I had wrongly assumed my neighbor was coming from his house (not somewhere farther away), so my two boys sat out front of the ER for 40 minutes. Not the 5 minutes I had expected. Their story of what had transpired while I had stupidly left them out there alone made me simultaneously sick and grateful."

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While waiting for the neighbor, her sons encountered what Norton calls "their first real-world experience with the freaky, perverted strangers they've been intermittently warned about."

She shares how while the boys waited on that bench, they were approached by a woman with two men, who asked them to "help them out by going into the bathroom where her boyfriend was hiding from the doctor and see if they could convince him to come out and get treated."

Having been warned about so-called "tricky people," CJ told the adults "no thank you" repeatedly. But the woman didn't give up and begged the boys, "Please? You could really save his life if you'd just go in that bathroom and tell him it's safe to come out."

Luckily, the neighbor soon arrived to pick up the boys, but Norton wrote, "not before they saw a third adult male come out from the bathroom, jump into the car with these other three hooligans and drive off."

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Norton wrote, "Tricky people are the new strangers. One of (Fitzgerald's) guidelines for knowing what people are unsafe is ... tricky people ask kids for help. If a safe adult needs help, they'll ask another adult." In fact, CJ had remembered that rule, telling his mom that's how he knew it was a trick. "Mom, I knew they were tricky people because they were asking us for help. Adults don't ask kids for help," he said.

The Upshot

Fitzgerald talked to Today about why the concept of "tricky people" is better than what kids are traditionally taught about strangers: "Most of the time, kids are learning 'stranger danger,' which is cute and it rhymes but isn't really effective. 'Tricky people' is certainly more effective because most strangers are not dangerous. ... Kids think a stranger is going to be somebody who is kind of scary looking or scary sounding, but statistically, if someone wants to harm a child, they are not going to appear scary; they're going to be charming, have an enticing offer, and seem friendly."

She adds, "Instead of looking for the boogie man, a child should look for the person asking them to do something that doesn't sound right or ask if the adult is trying to get them to break one of their family's safety rules or trick them."

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I love that Fitzgerald suggests asking kids if a person gives them a "thumbs up" feeling or a "thumbs down" feeling. My kids can definitely understand that.

In fact, I already talked to them about this story because it scared me so much. But Fitzgerald says parents shouldn't frighten kids, but aim to empower them instead.

"We shouldn't tell kids that there are bad people out there who want to hurt them. Everything should be very positive," she says.

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