A Fine Balance
"Parents need to keep the threat of strangers in perspective," says Dr. Womack, who says parents generally make one of two mistakes. "[Parents] either leave their kids alone in circumstances which are dangerous or they overplay the whole business of strangers so that the kids feel that behind every corner there lurks somebody who's going to harm them."
When broaching the subject, Cope says, "Talking about strangers in the context of [general] safety, just say, 'These are the things we do to stay safe. Remember we don't touch anything hot on the stove. You hold my hand when we cross the street. Tell me if you smell smoke, and don't play with fire.'"
"In truth, preschoolers don't do a lot of hanging out by themselves," says Dr. Womack. "There's always somebody who's supposed to be in charge of them. I would say that parents should tell their kids that if they don't know someone and they feel uncertain, [they should] ask the person who's in charge if they can talk to [this stranger]."
"If your preschooler is outgoing and doesn't hesitate to speak to anyone, don't worry," explains Cope. "If you're at the grocery store and somebody wants to come up and talk to him and you're there, then you'll say yes or no," she says. "It's not OK if you're not there."
The Truth about Stranger Danger
According to a report from the US Department of Justice, in one-third of all sexual assaults reported to law enforcement agencies, the victim is under age 12. But 47 percent of these assaults are by family members and 49 percent by acquaintances, while strangers committed only four percent of the crimes.
"In addition to teaching our children about stranger danger, we need to educate them about inappropriate contact by family and friends," says Shay Bilchik, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the agency that released the report.
"It's important that we let kids know that sometimes people who seem good can do bad things," says Cope. Kids need to be told, "Not all strangers are dangerous. Most adults want good things for kids. But sometimes even a good [intentioned] person might do a bad thing. I don't want that to happen to you, but if it does, you come and tell me right away."