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"If a stranger approached and asked her to go with them, I don't think she would go," one mother told the Oprah Winfrey show confidently. "She knows she's not supposed to speak to strangers unless I'm with her and she's never, ever supposed to go anywhere with anyone she doesn't know."
Right as this mother was talking to the camera crew, a man — a total stranger to the kid — asked her preschooler to help him look for a doggy, promising her $2 if she found him. Within moments, the girl walked off with the man, finding herself dangerously close to his car and out of her mother's reach.
It could have been a disaster. Thankfully, because the man was in fact child safety expert Ken Wooden and not a real predator, the day ended with nothing more than a wake-up call. It wasn't just that particular mother who found herself reassessing how she handled personal safety that day — the experiment was repeated multiple times, and children went with Wooden within an average of 35 seconds.
Similar experiments have since been repeated on camera over and over again, for different television networks and even by YouTubers. Time and time again, the results are the same — young children, children whose parents are convinced that they know going somewhere with a stranger is bad news and they wouldn't do it, are lured away within mere seconds.
If that wasn't shocking enough, it actually gets a whole lot worse. You may not be terribly surprised when preschoolers fall for predatory tricks, but surely college students know better? As it turns out, they don't. College students were eager to help Wooden get boxes into his trunk while he was wearing a sling, and promises of money or fame got their proverbial common-sense cards revoked real soon. Even young adults who were studying criminal justice agreed to get in a van and have their hands duct-taped together, based on nothing more than a home-printed business card and the promise of a chance to participate in reality TV!
Personal safety is something we get very wrong on a regular basis, then. If you are a parent worried about your kids, what should you teach them that might prevent them from getting into cars with strangers or helping them look for a lost puppy? And even more importantly, what should you do differently?
Can We Really Rely On Young Kids To Keep Themselves Safe?
What are we really doing when we tell our toddlers, preschoolers and early elementary kids to never go anywhere with strangers, or even just not to wander off while you're shopping or otherwise engaged? We're including them in the safety plan, we're assuming that they are able to protect themselves at least to some extent.
Gavin De Becker, safety expert and author of the best-selling books The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift, observes that he has regularly seen people leave their very small children much further away, often without even paying much attention to where they are, than they would ever leave their handbags. Of course we know that handbags can't protect themselves, but though your preschooler is a human being with budding independence, Wooden's experiments and similar ones that followed demonstrate, in the most shocking manner, that we can't expect them to protect themselves any more than your handbag could.
The answer, then? Of course you should teach your kid that going anywhere with strangers — out of the park, into their car, inside their home, to another shop, anywhere — is dangerous. However, you can never rely on them to actually follow that advice, not until they are much older and have had the right training.