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Stranger Danger: It’s Time to End the Rhyme and Talk to Strangers

Stranger danger is a simple, rhyming phrase that is easy to teach kids. It has been used to warn children about the potential danger of strangers for over 50 years.  But is it appropriate?  Might this simple little rhyme cause more harm than good? Thinking has shifted among child protection professionals, and with that change, a new approach, the concept of “tricky people” has been implemented.  To understand why changes have been made, a deeper understanding of the inherent problems of stranger danger is necessary.

Stranger danger mistakenly conveys the notion that strangers are the only, or primary, individuals who harm children. However, child abuse by strangers is rare, with 90% of harm coming from people children already know (NMAC, 2018). Moreover, stranger danger is problematic because children do not fully understand the concept of a stranger. Most children connect the word stranger to people who are mean or ugly. Consequently, in the mind of a child, people who seem to be nice and friendly are not strangers (McBride, 2011). Additionally, teaching kids to stay away from everyone they do not know also has ramifications. Stranger danger is a blanket statement that only fits limited scenarios. The concept eliminates key people when children need help. When children are lost, they may be surrounded by people who would assist them in finding their parents. There have been cases where a child’s rescue was delayed because they were afraid to ask for help from a “stranger” (McBride, 2011). This, in turn, leads to a more precarious situation that may have been avoided if the child knew that asking a stranger for help was an option.

Instilling confidence in children is much more effective than instilling fear and teaching them that everyone they do not know is evil. Susan Kennedy, from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, recommended telling children “…to look for people like store clerks and police officers who are trained to help children when they are lost. If they can’t find any of those people we should tell them to look for parents with children” (Kennedy, NCMEC, in Gordon, Sherri).  This reinforces the idea that there are many people who are in fact strangers who will help a lost child find his or her parents.  The recommendation goes an important step further in that it helps young children identify those safe strangers.

So now that we know who is safe for children to reach out to, who should children be cautious of?  The new phrase that is being adopted in place of stranger danger is “tricky people”.  The idea is that what someone says or does is what makes them “tricky” not how well a child may know them.  A tricky person may tell a child to keep a secret or ask the child to do something that makes the child uncomfortable (NMAC, 2018). Instead of teaching that all strangers are bad, it is important to show children that tricky and deceiving people are not to be trusted.  When in need of help, children should reach out to trusted individuals. Trusted individuals should be trying to assist children in finding their parents.

Children need to be taught and familiarized with the warning signs of tricky people throughout their childhood, verses being taught one phrase that does not apply to all situations. Teaching a child to avoid adults who are trying to coerce them into doing something they don’t want to do or who are asking them to keep an uncomfortable secret is always good advice, whether a child is lost or not.  When children are lost and in need of help however, they should be able to identify which adults they can trust and ask for help.  Children are being taught the phrase “tricky people”, because it does not eliminate all strangers as an option, and it increases the odds that a lost child will be able to find an adult to help.

Gordon, Sherri. How to Teach Your Kids What to Do If They Get Lost.  (Retrieved Oct 7, 2022) from

McBride, Nancy.  2005.  Child Safety is More Than a Slogan.  (Retrieved Oct, 7, 2022) from

Stop Teaching Stranger Danger.  2018.  Northern Michigan Alliance for Children.  (Retrieved Oct 8, 2022) from


Ms. Kaylee Williams is a student at Methodist University majoring in Criminal Justice and Forensic Science.  She is a member of the MU Volleyball Team.

Dr. Eric See is the Division Head for Criminal Justice and Military Science and a Professor at Methodist University.  He received a Ph.D. in Criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  His previous research has focused on firearms, concealed carry, police use of force, methamphetamine, and the mentally ill in jail and prison.