The Stranger Danger Myth
We're all familiar with “stranger danger”–the idea that strangers are responsible for a large proportion, or even a majority, of child abductions and assaults.
Likely, our parents drilled "stranger danger" into us, or we've seen true-crime terror stories of a child being taken while walking home from school.
“Stranger danger” is a myth.
The hard truth is our children are much more likely to be harmed by someone we know and trust.
The truth about "stranger danger"
Over 90% of CSA is committed by someone the child knows – less than 10% by strangers. And less than 1% of child abductions are “stereotypical kidnappings”–when children are abducted off the streets by a stranger. The vast majority of missing children are runaways, thrown-aways, or parental abductions, often as part of a custody dispute.
That a friend or family member may pose the greatest danger to our children is an uncomfortable truth. This discomfort is at the heart of why “stranger danger” has persisted as long as it has.
If there's some risk from strangers, isn’t teaching “stranger danger” still a good idea?
And here are a few reasons why.
Gives us a false sense of security when our child is with people we know, leading us to miss warning signs.
“Stranger danger” is in an odd way comfortable. It leads us to believe that “others” are responsible for harming our children and that the people we know and care about are, unquestionably, safe. We develop a false sense of security when our kids are with family and friends and become blind to red flags from the people we know. And while the vast majority of the people we know would never hurt our kids, some might.
When we realize that strangers cause only a small portion of harm to kids, we become more alert to warning signs and are more open to acting on those warning signs. Our kids are safer when we move away from “stranger danger” messaging.
Generates fear in children that people everywhere are out to get them.
“Stranger danger” makes children (and their parents!) afraid of every place and person they don’t know. Rather than understanding that most people are well meaning, children learn that anyone they don’t know is dangerous. While some caution is warranted with strangers (which we talk about below), life is better when we’re not living in fear.
Makes kids afraid to ask for help from strangers when they need it.
In 2005, an 11 year old Utah boy went missing for four days while on a boy scout trip. According to his rescuer, "the kid said he saw the horses but was scared of the people, didn't want to come out because he didn't know if they were scary people.” He also told his family he was afraid rescuers would “steal him.”
This is an extreme but important example of a child being so frightened by “stranger danger” that he ends up putting himself in danger by avoiding strangers–his rescuers. A more mundane example is children who get lost in stores and hide because they’re afraid of getting taken.
Children should understand which strangers they can ask for help from.
Leads to stereotyping, often of those who are already marginalized
“Stranger danger” makes the sex offender appear “other,” often lumped together with other societal “others,” like those who are homeless, mentally ill, or LGBTQ. We end up stereotyping these already marginalized groups as likely child predators. This is particularly true for groups that are seen by many as sexually “deviant”, such as homosexuals and transexuals. These groups have historically and without foundation been accused of being dangerous to children.
Is used to justify crime bills that are expensive and ineffective.
Surveys of politicians revealed that many get their information about sex crimes primarily from the media, and that most use their personal knowledge and information from the media to develop and vote on crime policies. However, the media does not provide an accurate picture of crime against children. Instead, it focuses on sensational stories of child abductions and assault, even using misleading or false statistics.
When politicians base their crime policies on inaccurate knowledge, the result is ineffective, potentially even harmful, policies.
Obvious examples are sex offender registries, an attempt combat the “stranger danger” threat to our children.
Here are a few of the issues with sex offender registries:
They aren’t effective.
A study of rape cases across 10 states where sex offender registries were implemented saw 6 states with no statistically significant increase or decrease in rape cases (4 showed increases, 2 showed decreases), 3 states with statistically significant decreases, and 1 state with significantly significant increase. 
95% of sexual offense arrests were by first time offenders. This means that 95% of sexual offenders arrested are not in the system, indicating that even a well-maintained a sex offender list can’t prevent the vast majority of sexual offenses through public awareness. 
They are based on the false understanding that sex offenders are more likely to recidivate.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics actually found that sex offenders are one of the least likely incarcerated categories to recidivate. 
They are expensive to build and maintain.
Many states resisted compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 because they felt it was too costly to implement. 
They are error prone.
In 2003, 24% of registrants location could not be accounted for. In 18 states, registration non-compliance is unknown. 
200,000 people on the registry were placed there as children.
Some children have been placed on the registry as young as 8 years old for offenses like pulling down another child’s pants in school. [26,22]
They continue to punish minor offenders who have already been punished for their crimes.
Registrable sexual offenses include public urination, prostitution-related offenses, consensual sex between teenagers, and teen sexting, in addition to much more serious crimes. Registered sex offenders are subject to social ostracism, employment restrictions, and sometimes, vigilanteism. 
But if we don’t teach stranger danger, what should we teach?
Experts now tell parents to teach kids about unsafe behaviors and safety best practices.
Talk to your kid about how a grownup they don’t know should and should not act.
A grownup might smile and chat briefly, but that should be all.
They should not:
Give a child gifts, especially if the child’s adult isn’t around.
Ask a child for help. Grownups do not need help from children; they can ask another grownup.
Ask a child to go somewhere with them, even if they say things like, “mommy’s had an accident” or “I lost my dog.”
If a stranger does any of these, tell your child to that they should leave and let another adult know. Children must understand that they can say “no” to adults and do not need to do what an adult asks to be polite.
Also talk to your kid about “tricky” people.
A person becomes “tricky” if they ask your kid to break a body safety rule or keep a secret. If someone asks your kid to do something that makes them feel icky inside, let them know that person might be a “tricky” person, and they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible. Importantly, A “tricky” person might be someone your kid knows, likes, and trusts.
And, of course, you should teach your kid about basic safety best practices.
Your kid should:
Know their body safety rules.
Always tell a trusted adult where they are going, even if they’re with someone else.
Use the buddy system–take a friend or trusted adult to avoid being alone in a public or unknown space.
Say “no” and yell if they feel scared or threatened.*
Know their adult’s names and phone numbers.
Know what to do if they get lost:
Stay in one place.
Ask a grownup for help–look for a mom with kids, a police officer, or someone with a name tag.
If they are lost and alone, they should make noise so someone can find them.
Ask the grownup helping them to call their adult.
Tell a trusted adult if they’re uncomfortable or get that icky feeling in their stomach.
One way to work on these safety best practices with your kid is to practice “what if” scenarios when you are out in public. Ask your kid things like, “What if you get lost? Where would you go? Who would you ask for help?”
Finally, you must learn signs of grooming and pay attention to grooming red flags, even if they come from someone you know and trust.
As a parent, when I first learned that the people most likely to harm my child were people I knew and trusted, I wondered if I could trust anyone. I even became anxious about letting my parents and parents-in-law babysit or do diaper changes.
However, I soon realized that I couldn't parent effectively if I didn't trust others.
While the numbers tell that if someone hurts our child, they are most likely to be someone we know and trust, the numbers also tell us that the vast majority of people we know and trust deserve that trust!
Instead of deciding I could trust no one, I started sharing our family's body safety rules, enforcing our family's boundaries, and watching for red flag behaviors, regardless of who they come from.
Alper, Mariel. “Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from State Prison: A 9-Year Follow-Up (2005-14).” The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, 2019, 35.
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NBC News. “Does ‘stranger Danger’ Go Too Far?” Accessed November 3, 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna8331335.
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This is very similar to "no, go, tell," which many CSA prevention advocates are now saying not to teach your kid, or to teach them with nuances. Because CSA is often perpetrated by someone the child knows, trusts, and has likely spent time grooming the child, "no, go, tell" is not effective. Additionally, it puts the onus of preventing or stopping the abuse on the child.
However, we also want to ensure that if our child does feel uncomfortable and feels like they can exit a situation, that they are empowered to do so.