- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Against a backdrop of highly publicized child abductions, some experts are urging parents to abandon the time-honored warning of “Don’t talk to strangers” and instead work creatively with their children on a variety of skills for being safe, but not scared.

“Our message is that children should recognize and avoid certain situations, rather than certain people,” said Nancy McBride of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Federal statistics indicate that there is no upsurge in child abductions and disappearances, although such cases often gain widespread attention, fueling anxiety among parents and others.

One of the groups trying to channel the anxiety into constructive child-safety approaches is the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which was founded by Minnesota couple whose 11-year-son was abducted in 1989 and has not been seen since.

The foundation’s executive director, Nancy Sabin, said the stranger-danger mantra “is far overrated” because most abductors and abusers are known to the parent or child.

“More than 80 percent of the time, the abductor is someone in the neighborhood,” she said. “The myth is that it’s a guy in a trench coat unknown to the child, but in fact, it’s rarely a total stranger. … Most people who are going to help a kid are strangers.”

Miss Sabin advised parents to practice “what if?” scenarios with their children to give them experience making decisions that might help them escape danger.

“Make it nonthreatening,” Miss Sabin said. “You don’t want to make a child afraid. If any of us are afraid, you can’t think clearly.”

Blanket fear of unfamiliar adults actually might be harmful, Miss McBride said, citing the recent case of Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old boy lost in Utah’s Uinta Mountains who hid from rescue workers because they were strangers.

Miss McBride said children should be taught to extricate themselves from a situation that frightens or discomforts them.

“That’s going to be tough for some parents,” she said. “You’re giving your children permission to be impolite if their safety is at stake.”

John Mould, a special-education teacher who has raised six children in the Philadelphia suburb of Ambler, said he’s impressed upon them that resistance might be the best option.

“Even when they’re younger, it’s well-documented that being loud and fighting is the thing to do,” Mr. Mould said.

With children ranging from 12 to 21, he and his wife have gone through a steady process of granting each child increasing independence — accompanied by precautions.

“We let them know when we turn things over to them,” Mr. Mould said. “Now that you can do this by yourself, here are the rules you should follow.”

One recent complication, he said, was the anxiety prompted by the mass-transit bombings in London, prompting warnings from Mr. Mould’s wife that the children should be alert to terror attacks in public places.

“At this point, the list of things to be scared of gets so long that it loses credibility,” he said. “Either the kids get a sense of paranoia or they say forget it — there are too many things to worry about.”

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