"It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"

Most parents do...but look anyway. How many times have you, as a parent, seen the missing child advertisement on the side of a milk carton, felt sympathy for the mother of that child, then a sigh of relief that yours is okay? Many parents-- especially of very young or newborn children-- experience a fear that their children will be kidnapped. It's quite normal. After all, it happens. Children do disappear-- some die.
In most cases, this common fear is not debilitating to a parent. Others are so obsessed with the possibility of disaster, that their fear restricts both their activities, and those of their children. To be sure, this is not conducive to fostering a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle. The dilemma becomes one of teaching children safety-- to recognize and avoid possible danger-- without making them fearful or withdrawn. The problem with the latter is that fearful responding generalizes to situations in which there is no apparent danger, thus restricting their behavioral repertoire of available responses and thus, their "models" of the world. In short, children learn to distrust everybody and everything and fail to develop a richly rewarding and resourceful self image.
Thus, it is useful to impart a healthy sense of caution in order to feel safe, by teaching children to make distinctions. This ca be accomplished by helping them understand criteria for perceiving certain people and situations as safe, and others as dangerous. In doing so, it is important to avoid scare tactics which frequently produce nightmares. For example, displaying the "missing child" milk carton, or a tabloid headline of a kidnapping, and then warning the child of similar consequences if he is not "careful" does not clearly communicate how to respond in the presence of danger. They will merely produce fearful responses.
In contrast, emphasizing what needs to happen in order to remain safe provides a child with a sense of control and security; and an ability to classify events as "good" and "bad." It is useful to teach a child that most people are kind and loving but there are some who are bad and can hurt you; and unless you can tell the difference in each case, its better to protect yourself and avoid contact with a particular person. Essentially, what you want to communicate to the child is that, unless he or she is with a parent or other trusted adult:

  1. Avoid accepting a ride, candy, gifts or anything else from a stranger.
  2. Don't unlock or open a door unless you recognize the person's voice.
  3. Refrain from helping a stranger, regardless of the situation. Instead, try to get a trusted parent or other adult to help.
  4. If someone tries to touch you in a way that makes you feel bad, tell a parent or neighbor right away.

Unfortunately, many of us are trained to engage in a sort of "management by crisis." When a situation is calm and stable, we do nothing. Then when a situation occurs for which there could be potentially negative consequences, we panic and lay the rules on the kid as he's walking out the door to play.
"Bobby, wait! Remember, don't go near any strangers. If someone tries to give you candy or a ride to the mall or something, say, 'no.' Be careful-- oh, and don't ask him anything like, 'Are you a stranger'. In fact, don't say anything if you see a stranger, just come get Mommy. In fact, come home and check in with me every fifteen minutes."
Change "management by crisis" to "management by objectives." Consider the outcomes or objectives you would like your child to be able to demonstrate. Then allow plenty of time to discuss them when your child is not distracted by another activity such as going out to play. Make teaching these objectives fun! Remember if you preach anxiously to a child, you may inadvertently teach him to respond anxiously; or he may simply become bored and stop listening. Instead, teach your child the desired objectives by role- playing various scenarios that contain both hazards to be avoided and recommended responses. For example: "Jamie, pretend you are coming out of school and I am someone you don't know who has just asked you if you want a ride home. But let's do this like a t.v. show. I'll be the stranger and you be yourself and say what you think is right, okay? Then you can tell me why you said that...just to be safe."