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Tricky People, not Stranger Danger: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 20-month-old and I are doing more venturing out into public and even though she doesn’t know about life before the pandemic, I think she’s as socially starved as I am. We’re sticking to outdoor activities until she can get a Covid-19 vaccine, which hopefully will be soon. How can I curb her enthusiasm to touch other babies and toddlers, and to know the difference between good strangers and bad strangers?

A World Of People Out There


Let’s hope this spring’s resumption of outdoor activities, and the much-anticipated vaccines for little ones grant a return to social mixing that is so important for our well-being, especially for parents and children.

All Children Are Potential Playmates

By nature, we are social animals. A toddler is fascinated to observe, and touch if allowed, a human being smaller than she is. She can compare sizes to notice that even though she is often told she is “too little” she’s still bigger than some people. Then when she sees a child close to her size and age she sees a model of what she might do – particularly something fun like swing on a swing or slide on a sliding board at the playground. And if there are two swings, or enough room on the slide, she can connect in a meaningful way with this other person by sharing the activity together.

You can work up a routine with her when encountering a baby to first ask the attending grown-up, “Can we touch the baby’s toes?” As long as the toes are covered, this is a quick, transmission-free tactic that avoids skin-to-skin contact. And it keeps the children’s faces at a safe distance. Even when toes are bared in the warmer weather to come, there’s little chance of unintentional transmission of germs; and most babies delight in having their toes recognized, named, and touched.

(Almost) All Caregivers are Friendly

Chances are, any grown-up who is also taking care of a little one will be pleased to exchange greetings and idle conversation with your child – and with you. This might be a brief conversation about the color of shoes (a favorite topic of toddlers), or deeper exchanges between the adults about where to find bargains on children’s footwear. If you go to the same playground at the same time of day or week, you’ll probably have longer and longer conversations with now familiar faces, you will learn each others’ names, and your children will be happily playing with each other. One day one of you will need a wipe, or a diaper, or a plastic bag, which is quickly supplied from someone else’s backpack. This is how strangers become friends.

Research on toddlers’ reactions to “strangers” suggests that your child will take her cues from you. If you are comfortable chatting with someone, your little one is likely to also feel comfortable. Similarly, if your facial expression, body language, and voice are expressing discomfort, anxiety, or fear, your child is likely to wrap herself around your ankles and hide her face.

Safe with Me

You’ve had decades of experience with people to know that you can’t always tell at first if someone is a “good” person. You may have had friendships run hot and cold over time. Maybe you’ve been hurt, betrayed, cheated, or otherwise repulsed by someone’s behavior after having known them a while. Relationships can be tricky.

It may be tempting to get your child to classify people as “good” or “bad” or to use the term “stranger” for anyone that you don’t know. But this confuses the real issue. You want her to know with whom she is safe and to learn to be cautious with anyone who makes her feel unsafe. You’re already doing this by modeling with whom you speak and how you speak with them. You might accept a food sample at the grocery store, but the hair standing up on the back of your neck tells you not to take the shiny red apple from the old woman bent over her basket. (Snow White reference.) Your child feels safe with you because you keep your distance when someone makes you feel threatened in any way.

Teaching a child to fear everyone beyond the family and the next-door neighbor is not a guarantee of protection. Most child predators gain access to a child after a longstanding relationship. According to the Polly Klass Foundation 97% of missing children are found perfectly safe. Child abduction by a malevolent stranger is an extremely rare event. So go ahead and chat with people you don’t know, as long as the vibe is comfortable.

Tricky People

A better classification to help a child avoid trouble is a “Tricky Person”. This is someone who may be friendly, or may offer a shiny red apple, or may ask for your help, but then makes you feel bad or causes you harm.  

Around age 3 is a good time to use “tricky” to describe a behavior that violates trust. It could even be an inanimate object such as a loose floor board that causes someone to trip. But as far as tricky people, you’re still in charge of choosing the people she’s with, according to your trust instincts, for the next several years.

For now, you are modeling how to approach “strangers” and how, as you feel comfortable, to turn some strangers into dear friends.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  The museum is now open for timed visits for families and small groups by reservation.

Dr. Wood will be presenting a Zoom workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled: “Temperament Differences – From Easy to Difficult” on Monday, May 9, 7-9 pm. Register online or by phone: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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