Teaching Kids Caution (Without Scaring Them to Death!)


So, I’m running up against a parenting issue that has me kind of stumped at the moment… as has happened before, and I’m sure will happen MANY times again.  It’s the issue of teaching kids about personal safety, “stranger danger”, and caution with other people.  For some kids this caution might be a part of their personality, but not my daughter Madeleine.  She’s 3, coming up on 4, and is friendly to the entire world.  She loves to say hello to anyone she sees- store clerks, neighbors out walking, people at restaurants.  And if someone says hello back or smiles at her, she is happy to go give them a hug, announce her name, and start chatting as if they were best of friends.  A part of me is happy that she’s so friendly and open, because I know it comes from the fact that she’s been surrounded by love and safety for her entire life.  She’s never known unkindness or abuse- it’s just not part of her worldview, and I’m so thankful that she’s had a safe and loving life experience so far.  But this does make it very hard to start explaining to her why we have certain rules about staying close to Mama and being cautious of strangers.  Madeleine is very articulate and curious, and any of my attempts to explain these types of things lead to questions that I don’t want to answer yet, like “Why do I need to stay with you?  What would someone do to me if they took me?”  So I’m trying to keep this an open topic of conversation that I revisit every few weeks or months, a little at a time, instead of having one “big talk” that might scare her or give too much information.

(Side note- my mom, when I was about 5 and had hidden from her in a store and scared her half to death, told me the story of Adam Walsh.  As she put it, “He only went one aisle away from his mom and they later found his head in a ditch!”  That scared me to death… and I never went away from her in the store again.  But I’m not sure I want to take that harsh of a route with my kids, if I can avoid it!)

Even though I’m just starting out into this sometimes difficult topic, I’ve been reading as much advice as I can, talking with parents of older kids, and trying to anticipate questions and problems.  Here are a few things I’ve learned and will make a part of my conversations with my kids:

-Use the phrase “tricky people” instead of “strangers”.  A blog I read made the point that children are far more likely to be abused by someone they know (coaches, relatives, family friends), and many times kids don’t protest because the person is not a stranger.  The blogger suggested that using the words “tricky people” might help kids focus on behaviors rather than whether someone is a stranger or not.

-Teach kids that adults do not need help from kids, and shouldn’t ask for it.  Any request by an adult to go somewhere and help them with something, especially alone, is not okay.

-Teach kids that bodies are private, especially certain parts.  Only parents and the doctor should be touching private areas, and it’s okay for kids to say no to anyone else.

-The concept of “bad apples”.  This comes from a book I had as a kid, The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers (anyone else remember that one?).  In the book, Sister learns about strangers and then thinks everyone she meets is mean and scary.  Mama Bear helps her feel better by saying that people are like apples- almost all of them are good, but there are a very few “bad apples” out there.  So be cautious but not afraid all the time.

So does anyone have any good advice for me or other mamas starting out on this topic?  Are there any books or videos you’ve found to be helpful?  If anyone else has a friendly and outgoing child, let us know how you helped them develop caution without squelching their friendly spirit.  Please share so we can all benefit from each other’s advice!


  1. Great post!!! You daughter sounds VERY similar to mine and this is an issue that I have been struggling with as well….a mama can only read the Bearnstein Bears “Stranger Danger” book so many times! Great info!!

  2. This has been a huge topic in our house lately because Kaiden is very friendly and chatty as well as a rule follower. I can totally see an adult conning him very easily and he being afraid not to obey! I think often kids think of “strangers” as MEN that look like monsters and who have the appearance of being really scary, so we always say “never leave with someone you don’t know”. I love the term “tricky people”, definitely going to use that!

    Dateline did an article on this that I review often!

  3. My son isn’t exactly a rule-follower (unfortunately…he’s quite stubborn), but he has always been really friendly and outgoing and I too worry that he won’t know better. Thanks for a great post and a reminder that I need to discuss this with him. 🙂


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