Stranger Danger (aka: Remember the Milk Cartons)


missingLike most kids who grew up in the 1980’s, I was terrified of strangers. The idea was drilled into our heads by paranoid parents and teachers: STRANGER = DANGER. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t accept candy from strangers. If a stranger asks you to help him search for his missing dog, run away and tell a trusted grownup. Because if you go with a stranger, you may end up with your face on a milk carton, just like poor Etan Patz.

Remember Etan Patz? He was a cute 6 year-old kid who disappeared one morning in 1979 as he was headed to school. His disappearance shocked the nation, and started the milk carton movement. Suddenly, that carton of milk next to our morning bowls of Sugar Crisp cereal became a daily reminder to kids everywhere: Talk to strangers, and you will wind up kidnapped.

Adam Walsh 1981

Adam Walsh, who disappeared from a shopping mall in 1981. His father, John Walsh, later became the host of the television show, America’s Most Wanted. 

Kidnapped. To an 80’s kid, it was pretty much the scariest thing that could happen to you. Besides the news stories filled with sobbing parents and neighbors scouring their communities with flashlights, there were cartoon episodes, chapter books, and school assemblies training kids to be aware of their surroundings, and to act in self-defense if a stranger tries to grab you. There were after-school specials and even full-length movies about real-life kids who got kidnapped and murdered while playing, like Adam Walsh, the boy who went missing without a trace. The names of the kidnapped kids haunted us as we walked to school — Michaela Garecht, Kevin Andrew Collins, Polly Klaas.

face on the milk carton

Was there a single girl who grew up in the 80’s and didn’t read this book?

Now some would say that the whole Stranger Danger safety campaign went a little overboard. After all, the actual risk of a child being abducted by a stranger is pretty low. But thanks to media overexposure (and a ton of commercials reminding us to drink milk), we 80s kids grew up in a culture that compulsively promoted child safety, just short of locking us in the house and making us wear bubble wrap. Today, we try to be a little more relaxed than our own parents, easing off on the phobia-inducing Stranger Danger fear tactics with our kids.

Most of the time, I feel as though I’ve struck just the right balance of educating my kids to be stranger-aware. However, just the other day, my 10 year-old nearly gave me a heart attack. While out riding his bicycle in our neighborhood, he suffered a small crash and scraped his elbow against the pavement. In tears, he called me from a concerned stranger’s cell phone to inform me of what had happened. prevent child abduction

“Wait…whose cell phone?” I asked.

A stranger. And not just a stranger…a strange man who got out of his car and offered a cell phone. Those familiar feelings of childhood panic rose to my throat. My kid did not have proper Stranger Danger training. What if the stranger had been one of the bad guys who steal kids? My little guy’s face could have ended up on a milk carton.

And so, after we’d had a chance to clean up his scraped elbow, I sat my kid down for a good old-fashioned 1980’s fear tactic lesson on the danger of strangers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. It went something like this: If you are away from home and absolutely need help, and there is no police officer, security guard, teacher, or other trusted adult, then this is how to regard strangers:

Green Light: A mom with kids.

Yellow Light: A woman (older women, like grandmothers, because you can outrun them).

Red Light: Men. Just no. Run away.

Stranger Danger

Perhaps some people will consider this type of training to be over-the-top by 2015 standards. But I know that I am not the only grown-up child of the 80’s who still remembers what happened to Kevin Collins. Adam Walsh. Michaela Garecht. Polly Klaas. And many other unfortunate kids whose childhood was stolen from them. In memory of those kids, and of their families whose lives were ripped apart, I would rather pass on such safety lessons to the next generation, so that we will see a lot fewer kids’ faces on milk cartons, and a lot more outside, playing and riding their bikes.


6 responses to “Stranger Danger (aka: Remember the Milk Cartons)

  1. Great post! There has been a video going around on facebook, maybe you have seen it, with a man doing a social experiment talking to the parent first and then approaching the child (with a puppy too) and all 3 kids it showed, not only talked to the man and pet the puppy but went with him to see the other puppy’s. Made me re-evaluate and realize I need to talk to my own children about this.
    But this was a very well thought out post on a very real subject.

    • I have seen similar videos before. I remember one like the one you described, which took place in a park, and the parents who watched it all on camera were astonished that their kids fell for the bait. It is so frightening to think that it could happen to even our own well-trained kids, right?

  2. You know, you can either let your kids walk around free and not educate them of the possibilities of the world and rely on wishful thinking that the good will prevail and you will beat the odds or you can do your part to teach them and take as many precautions as you can to avoid trouble. Now that I am very much aware that the things I read about can and in fact do happen to me, I showed my children the crime maps online which show what exactly is going on in our neighborhood and adjacent areas. I don’t let them walk alone, there are the FACTS of living in an urban area and no amount of positive thinking will change the fact there was an armed assault a quarter of a mile away. In other current events, a woman was going around stealing wallets and purses in grocery stores all around the metro area. So, I went to a child safety lesson at my church and a parent was convinced the rhetoric was outdated because children were too sophisticated now a days to fall for the puppy. Nope. Children are children. We need to talk to our children about this, thank you for your great post!

    • It’s true…the choices we must make to protect our children are influenced by a number of things, from the crime statistics in our own neighborhoods to our own experiences and perceptions of safety. I am sometimes torn between the desire to hover and drive my children everywhere, and the fear of sending over-sheltered, under-prepared kids out into the world in a few short years. I don’t want for them to live in fear, too nervous to navigate a frightening and dangerous world. But I do want for them to be aware; to not put themselves into hazardous situations, and to know how to handle themselves when facing a threat or potential threat. My 10-yo reminded me that just mentioning Stranger Danger rules a couple of times is not enough. It is like educating them about drugs, or unsafe sex, or other very real dangers which they may face at some point. It should be a regular conversation, with lots of small “check-ins.”

      • Absolutely, well said, your concerns are shared by parents everywhere. It has to be a regular ongoing education, I wish you much success!

  3. Pingback: Capturing the Stranger, part 2 (StoryADay Post) | Stories in 5 Minutes

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