'Stranger danger' scare sparks debate
A reported stranger danger incident in Southfield left some people shaking their heads after police announced it was the father of a young girl yanking her toward a car and not a kidnapper.
The 7-year-old girl, unhappy with a hat that her father had bought for her Tuesday at a Burlington store in the city, began shouting "stranger danger" as the father led her from the store.
Some child safety experts say the incident had a positive side: Onlookers called police, who alerted the media.
Others say teaching children to yell "stranger danger" in cases of possible abduction has little value and may cause youngsters to develop trust issues.
Nick Loussia, deputy chief of the Southfield Police Department, said detectives, using information gleaned from the witnesses and store video, went to the family’s home and confirmed that the child was safe with her parents.
"The daughter was also talked to about the consequences of her yelling 'stranger danger' when it was not true," Loussia said in an email.
But the incident is a teaching moment, experts say.
The girl, who wasn't identified, had recalled enough of what she learned to utter the words that spilled onto the airwaves and social media. Most parents and authorities would hope children have the presence of mind to call out for help if they feel threatened.
There's no curriculum for teaching "stranger danger," but it's often taught as early as preschool and should be reinforced at home, said Paul Bernstein, a clinical social worker at Child & Family Solutions Center in Farmington Hills and a former elementary school social worker of 20 years.
"It doesn't always work ... but role-playing can," he said.
The consequences of talking to or going with a stranger have been on display for years in videos by Joey Salads, a YouTube personality. Salads' videos of luring children with a dog at playgrounds, with their parents' permission, have gone viral.
In the videos, Salads asks parents if their children will know not to leave with a stranger. In virtually all of the instances, the kids walk away with him.
Parents are stunned to see their children be lured by Salads and say these kinds of encounters are what they fear.
But one writer and parent calls it a counterproductive way to gauge 'stranger danger' and a child's adherence to safety rules, even as Bernstein says that such scare tactics may get families more involved in teaching their children to stay safe.
Lenore Skenazy, a former journalist and author of "Free-Range Kids," a book about raising children to function with little parental supervision, says the videos are "horrible and not a realistic depiction of abductions."
"Nationally, the crime rate is back to what it was in 1963," said the New York mother of two, citing Disaster Center crime stats. "The chances of a man approaching your kids with a puppy while you're sitting there ... it doesn't happen."
So what's the balance between scaring a child and leaving things to chance?
Stop teaching stranger danger, Skenazy says. Instead, she advises parents to teach their kids who is and isn't a stranger so they don't fear everyone.
"Teach them you can talk to anybody and but you cannot go off with anybody," Skenazy says. "Your children aren’t very safe when they are taught they can't talk to anyone. It makes them think everyone's terrifying."
"They should feel completely safe running into a store and saying, 'I need to use your phone.'"
Some readers who commented on a Detroit News story about the incident wondered why witnesses called police but did not confront the man who was pulling the screaming girl.
Connie Hudson posted she would "paddle (the girl's) butt."
"...Yelling stranger danger was her punishment for her dad. Had cops gotten there this could have ended badly. Brat!"