Beyond "Don't Talk to Strangers"

Megan Lindow
December 9, 2002

On a recent Sunday morning in Santa Cruz, ten youngsters and their parents practiced saying "no" to some very tempting offers.

"I'll take you to the toy store and let you choose anything you want, if you just let me play with your hair," Irene van der Zande told one girl, who said, "No!"

Next, she offered a father a free trip to Hawaii "if you just do this one thing, even though you know it's wrong."

"No!" The dad replied.

As van der Zande went around the circle offering extravagant and sometimes comical bribes, the children and adults coached and applauded each other in their firm refusals.

The workshop was hosted by KidPower International, an organization that trains children and their parents in violence prevention and self defense. The workshops are designed to be fun, not scary, says founder and executive director van der Zande, and teach practical, everyday skills.

"We don't run away from hard issues," she says, "but we also don't want to traumatize kids." At the Santa Cruz workshop, kids four to eight practiced the "No Game" with their parents. Facing each other in pairs, they took turns yelling "No!" louder and louder. Some children snarled with mock ferocity, and others dissolved into giggles, while van der Zande coached, "From your belly, let's hear a strong, loud 'No!'"

Later on, the children practiced tossing hurtful words into an imaginary garbage can and checking with an adult before accepting a friendly invitation.

Family safety rules
Childhood safety depends on educating parents as well as youngsters, van der Zande says. KidPower encourages families to establish safety rules, such as checking with the adult in charge before going somewhere with someone, arranging where to meet if the family is separated, and making sure kids know what to do when they answer the door.

Boundary skills
In KidPower, children role-play three levels of setting boundaries: one child practices telling another to stop playing with her hair. Van der Zande demonstrates:

  1. "You look me in the eye, take my hand away, and say 'please stop playing with my hair.'"
  2. If that doesn't work, "Stand up, make a fence with your hands and say, 'I said stop.'"
  3. If the person gets offended, "You say, 'I like you and I want you to stop.'"

Rights and respect
The workshop "gives children permission, for example, to not talk to someone on the street, or to not go with someone even if they know that person," says John Luna-Sparks, a social worker at Children's Hospital in Oakland. And "a family member in the same workshop is also learning that, yeah, a kid does have the right to say no."

After participating in the program with his son and two daughters, Lloyd Latty says he realized that childhood safety begins at home, with parents respecting children's wants, needs and boundaries. "I think [the workshop] gave [kids] a vocabulary to express their feelings about what they wanted done or stopped and a sense of power to go with those feelings."

Confidence, not fear
Recent high-profile kidnappings have made many parents fearful. KidPower teaches them positive ways of talking about safety, van der Zande says, so children can learn the skills without absorbing adult fears. By doing role-plays with their children, for example, parents help them practice being assertive and setting boundaries.

"Most of the time people will not bother you if you walk with awareness and confidence," van der Zande says. "So we show what that means and the children practice." The more often children practice sticking up for themselves or checking with trusted adults, the more skills and confidence they gain.

Success stories
Jerilynn Shaker, East Bay program coordinator for KidPower, says she was surprised to hear her daughter speak up from the back seat one day, saying: "Daddy, you need to put your seat belt on. It's not a choice, it's about your safety."

Other parents have reported seeing their children stand up to bullies and avoid unwanted interactions with strangers using the techniques they learned in KidPower, says van der Zande. Now KidPower will have a chance to measure its effectiveness, thanks to an evaluation grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Research on similar programs has shown they do increase children's knowledge about how to handle difficult situations.

KidPower Tips:

Kids need to learn how to:

  • Stand and walk with awareness and confidence.
  • Keep safe distance from someone approaching them.
  • Walk away from a stranger, even one who is being very nice.
  • Say "no," using polite and clear words.
  • Use eye contact and assertive body language.
  • Check first even if someone says not to.
  • Get help from a busy adult.
  • Make noise, run, get to safety.

KidPower safety tips for parents

  • Children are more likely to be harmed by someone they know than by a stranger.
  • Children need clear safety rules.
  • Ask your child often: "Is there anything you've been wondering or worrying about that you haven't told me?"

KidPower safety tips for children

  • Most people are good.
  • My job is to check with an adult in charge before I go anywhere with anyone, or let a stranger get close to me.
  • I do not give personal information to a stranger or to someone who makes me feel uncomfortable.
  • It's OK to get help from strangers in an emergency.
  • I belong to myself—my body, my time, my spirit.
  • Touch has to be both peoples' choice and it has to be safe.
  • Touch for reasons of health or safety is not always a choice, but it should never have to be a secret.
  • If I have a problem, I need to tell a trusted adult.

About KidPower
Since 1989, Kidpower International has trained 80,000 children, teens, and parents in eight countries. Workshops, tailored for different age groups, are available in several languages including Spanish, French, Cantonese, and Tagalog. KidPower offers public workshops and tailors workshops for schools and other institutions.


Talk Back

If you've got comments or questions about this story, we'd like to hear them. Send your response to Susan Phillips .


This article originally appeared in the November-December 2002 issue of the Children's Advocate, published by Action Alliance for Children.