How likely would a child walk away with a stranger?


Sarah MacDonald

As a kid did you ever have those dreams when you were being followed or, even worse, dragged into a car?  Those dreams where you’d try and scream but nothing would come out except for a strangled silence? Those dreams where you’d wake up sweaty, fearful and needing your mum? 

I’d often have nightmares after the ‘stranger’ talk which involved being sat down and told about men trying to kidnap kids for some unspeakable, unimaginable act.

Despite those fears, I had a freedom that kids of today do not.  I spent entire days in the park, wandering up to the local oval on bikes, moving from one house to the other.  Pre-mobile phones, there would have been entire 5-hour blocks where my mother had no idea where I was.


Kids these days don’t have that freedom.  Many are kept inside, ever watched and ever worried about.  We carers know this and we’re concerned about it.  But at the same time as being chided for being paranoid parents, we’re shown stories like this that keep us that way -


A British television program persuaded nine parents to take their kids to the local gated playground in a park in London.  All pretended to take an urgent phone call on their mobile and wandered off to then watch what happened when a man approached their child and asked them to help him look for his dog.  To the mothers’ horror, seven of the nine children walked from the playground with him within 90 seconds.  All had been warned about stranger danger.  Watching the video twists the gut; even an eleven year old initially goes with the man (but then changes her mind and runs back to her mother). 

These stories make good TV because they connect us back to both the silent screams of childhood nightmares and to the greatest nightmare we have as parents.  Fears recently flamed by hearing about young girls kidnapped and kept as sex slaves in the United States and Austria. We instantly identify with the mothers in the story who describe their fright as a ‘reality check’ despite the fact that it was a set up.  Yet we need to understand that what’s pitched as a friendly media wake up call for parents could also be seen as an attempt to whip up panic.


The entire ‘stranger danger’ push is actually misleading.  In the United States the chance of abduction by a stranger is about 1 in 1.5 million.  There are no Australian figures but we do know children are nearly eight times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a family member or an adult known to them than by a stranger. British writer Warwick Cairns, author of ‘How to Live Dangerously’ (a statistically based plea to stop living scared), tried to put the statistics a different way.  He calculated that if you wanted to guarantee that your child would be snatched off the street, he or she would have to stand outside, alone, for 750,000 years.

It’s an insanely low risk. Yet, if you’re like me, you dismiss this reality check.  Because when we hear about abductions logic leaves us.  The ‘stranger’ has become the modern day ‘wicked witch’ of ‘bogeyman’.   When we were babies they hid under our beds, when we are parents they live in cupboards in our brain that have no lock.

What to do? Perhaps we need to ask what is the cost of these fears. What are they doing to us? What are they doing to our children? And what are they doing to our community?

First to the kids.  I don’t know of many who live a life in lockdown but many are living a life too regulated and too safe. After reading about how this reduces resilience I recently allowed my daughter to picnic in the local bushland with a friend.  I set a time limit of an hour.  After an hour and a half I had sweaty palms and a rising panic.  I was about to set out to find them when they returned flushed with adventure, thrilled by their freedom and seeming smarter and savvier.  I swear they grew up a year in ninety minutes.

And there lies the developmental risk of life in a cage.  It infantises our babies. We need to educate them about their safety in a smart way.  We need them to have the freedom to build confidence and competence; to gain skills, handle risk and to develop strength to stand up to an adult.  And surely we need them to have openness and trust in people rather than viewing all as possible paedophiles.  I talk to my kids about enlisting the help of strangers if they are lost - in the United States an eleven year-old lost Boy Scout actually avoided rescue searchers because he feared they wanted to steal him!

And what of community?  I don’t want to live in a land divided by fear and paranoia.  A local primary school in Bendigo recently protested about a supermarket next door because of stranger danger.  This shows the dissolving of trust and solidarity between citizens and it makes society fractured and fearful.

And what of ourselves?  As a parent I have to have faith in people and my children. Because if I’m crippled with fear I know I’ll pass it onto them – a contagion that could make them insecure, frightened and distrustful of others.  In some ways, having a child is in itself an ultimate act of hope and trust. I have to keep faith in my society and my community or it leaves me lost.

Yet that’s more in my head than in my heart.  I admit I still don’t let my children walk to primary school alone. I’m more worried about the main roads full of big black four-wheel drives than scary men.  But after talking to them about the UK playground experiment I decided to do an experiment on myself.

Yesterday, after walking my kids across the main road I let them walk to school. I only followed for a while.  I promise. Just to see them across the next big road.  Then I turned back.  I have to confess I could see the school.

We all have to find the balance between ensuring our child’s safety and smothering them with our fears.  We have a duty to give them information, skills and age-related freedoms while keeping a lid on our own nightmares.  I’m interested to hear how you do it.