Guest blog by Carol Watson – bio at the bottom.
In the early ‘80s when I first asked to do an abduction prevention and personal safety program for young children,
I started with what I had been told as a child. “Don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from strangers, stranger=danger. What I very quickly realized was that it simply did not work. No matter how creative I was (I’m pretty creative!) I could not communicate what a stranger was to 3-7 year olds let alone what to do if confronted with one.
There was no internet available to mere mortals, there was no Google, no smart phones. I had the public library to try to find what I was supposed to. I found nothing useful. I was literally ready to give up when I had one of those light bulb moments. I was trying to communicate who the bad guys are, but that’s an impossible task. My child and most of the children I was helping to look for were not taken by strangers. As it turns out most of the sexual abuse of children isn’t perpetrated by strangers either. Dad is not a stranger, the coach is not a stranger, the next door neighbor, the pastor of the church is not a stranger. Instead of trying to tell kids who the bad guys are (some of them aren’t even guys) I realized I could tell them what dangerous people do. If I focused on behaviors and situations that should trigger a protective response in our children, I could begin to try to create an effective program.
The program I created is called Run, Yell & Tell! Over the years of teaching parents and educators about this program I realized many were still skeptical about the lack of the word stranger in such programming so I created a handout that explains why stranger=danger doesn’t work. I came up with the information by basically reverse engineering. I didn’t start with statistics and information about child development. I started with what worked. Here are the main points.
Beyond Stranger Danger
Five Reasons Why Telling Your Kids About Strangers Will NOT Keep Them Safe
- Little kids don’t get it! The word stranger is hard to explain to a small child and your definition of stranger may be quite different from someone else’s.
- Kids are much more at risk for abduction and sexual abuse with people they know. At least 19% of children who are taken by non-family members are abducted by someone they know, an acquaintance. The largest category of abducted children, over 200,000 each year in the US, are taken by family members – usually a non-custodial parent.
- In some emergency situations a child may need to go to someone they don’t know for help. If we have taught them to be afraid of everyone they don’t know we have cut them off from help in these situations. We need to tell them how to find a safe person to go to for help. Some suggestions are: 1) look for a Mom with kids. 2) look for a Grandma. 3) look for a Dad with kids. 4) in a store, go to the person at the cash register.
- Children who are given stranger danger instruction tend to get a distorted picture of what a dangerous person looks like. They say things like ‘A stranger is a man with a dark face.” Or “He wasn’t a stranger, he was really nice to me.” The fact is you can’t tell who is dangerous by the way they look.
- Children who are taught to fear strangers react strangely in normal situations. They may become hysterical in the grocery store because Mom is talking to a stranger (the gal at the check out counter) and others might refuse to get on the bus because its full of strangers.
Instead of teaching our kids about strangers we need to tell them about behavior that may signal danger and what to do when approached by ANYONE. The Bad Guys don’t wear black hats anymore and some of them aren’t guys!
When we deal with safety for young children we don’t give them guidelines or suggestions, we give the RULES. You have to hold my hand when we cross the street. You may not get out of your car seat and wander about the car! The rules are simple and unambiguous!
Run, Yell & Tell! Rule #1:
If anyone wants to give you something you’re supposed to say: “I HAVE TO ASK FIRST!” And run right away to the person who is taking care of you and ask if it is okay.
Run, Yell & Tell! Rule #2:
If anyone wants you to go somewhere with them, you’re supposed to say: “I HAVE TO ASK FIRST!” And run right away to the person who is taking care of you and ask if it is okay.
Run, Yell & Tell! Rule #3:
There is touch that’s okay, and touch that’s sometimes okay and sometimes not okay. All kinds of touch, especially hugging and kissing have to be okay with both people.
The Private Zone:
Everything that is covered up by your swimsuit is called The Private Zone.
Private means it’s just for you; it’s not okay for anyone to touch you there – – the only exceptions are medical and hygiene. And it’s never okay for anyone to ask you to touch them in their private zone.
What is a Dangerous Situation? If someone tries to grab you, tries to make you go away with them, tries to touch you in a way that’s not okay, makes you feel scared or makes you feel icky…
Dangerous Situation – Response #1: RUN!
RUN to where there are people. Don’t run to a lonely place. RUN to the closest place there are people who can help you!
Dangerous Situation – Response #2: YELL!
YELL for help with your tummy to your toes. That is in loud, deep-pitched voice using diaphragmatic breathing. It’s better to yell than to scream because people consider screaming normal kid-play noise.
Dangerous Situation – Response #3: TELL!
Tell a grown-up you trust what happened to you. There are lots of different grown-ups you can tell.
I have personally delivered this program to 10s of thousands of children. In 1992 I was persuaded to write a children’s book of the same name based on the program. Thousands of copies have been sold and given away to families and early childhood programs all over the US and Canada. I know it works. I have letters and emails and crayon drawings that say it works and children have gotten out of dangerous situations. Run, Yell & Tell! is a copyrighted, trademarked program of Missing Children Minnesota. For more information contact us at: general.info@MissingChildrenMinnesota.org
Carol Watson was the Executive Director of Missing Children Minnesota (MCM) for over three decades. MCM the oldest non-profit child search organization in the mid-west. Carol’s eldest son was abducted by her ex-husband in 1983 and during the thirteen months he was missing, she participated in the founding of MCM. Carol was a member of the founding board of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children organizations (AMECO) and is currently board chair. She has serves on the board of Community Shares Minnesota. She still works for MCM part time having left the E.D. position to become the assistant E.D. when she turned 65.
In her role as public education coordinator for MCM, Ms. Watson has developed prevention programs for children from age 3 through high school, as well as a program for adults. The response to these programs has been so positive that in 1993 MCM published Run, Yell & Tell! A Safety Book For Children. In 1996, Erica’s Choices Alternatives to Running Away was published. Both books, authored my Ms. Watson have received excellent reviews and endorsements. The third book in the series I Want To Be S.A.F.E.R. for 3rd – 6th graders was published in 2004. She has testified as an expert witness on parental child abduction in court and at the state legislature. She was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Missing Children in 1990, and in 1992, she assisted the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in the development of Minnesota Guidelines to Missing Children Investigations: A Resource book. She has worked with the BCA on law enforcement training on parental abduction.
In 1988 Ms. Watson completed the “Mini MBA” for Non-profit Managers at St. Thomas University in St. Paul. In 2001 she received a National Service Award from the Washington Times Foundation and she and her husband Richard Olson were named Minnesota Parents of the Year by the American Family Counsel.
Ms. Watson has provided MCM’s prevention programs for tens of thousands of children parents and professionals over the last 32 years.