Like 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.