Stranger Danger Doesn’t Cut It

For me, growing up in rural Oklahoma throughout the 1980s, stranger danger was meaningful. I mostly drifted within the sphere of strangers when I traveled with my family or once a year during our town’s Rattlesnake Derby. Our town of about 2,500 residents exploded to about 40,000 people during exactly one weekend a year. A stranger was a rare but existent occurrence and I could understand the danger.

For my kids, stranger danger is somewhat meaningless and outmoded. It’s not simply outdated. Our daily lives encounter or have the capacity to encounter millions of strangers every day. Our modes of transportation, schooling, research, community, play, and communication are fundamentally different now than when I was a child. I feel deeply inconsistent when I talk to my kids about strangers.

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

“Allow this nurse you may have only seen maybe once a year stick a sharp needle in your arm.” [Yes, we immunize. That’s a different topic.]

“Go to class with this lady/gentleman we just met five seconds ago during a mass orientation.”

“If you’re in trouble, find an emergency worker or responsible adult.”

“Don’t be afraid to make new friends today at the park.”

“But, remember, don’t talk to strangers.”

As the adult, I’m confused. These rules are no rules at all. As a parent, I consciously strive to hold my kids accountable to rules only if I can comprehend them. You go to school because it is the law. You do not bully because it is wrong. Don’t think differently of people with differences because all our differences are just DNA. Learn and obey pedestrian and bicycle traffic laws because they keep you safe.

I cannot comprehend stranger danger as a rule. It makes no sense to me, so I know I cannot reasonably expect to explain it understandably to my kids. And this is not like math. I cannot simply send my children to someone else to learn stranger danger. Or, at least in my mind, I shouldn’t.

Almost exactly two years ago I started teaching for Amridge University in the Criminal Justice program. I teach about public safety and security, terrorism, emergency planning and preparedness, and other related topics. Turns out, teaching these subjects has been a tremendous help to my anxiety disorder! When you teach, you learn new things over and over.

I could go on for days about safety and security matters, but I’m here to share just one strategy I use with my own boys to help them learn situational awareness. The state of the world requires us to be situationally aware. I plead with you not to leave your own security to the fates of national alert color schemes and freebie password managers, but I urge you in the strongest possible ways – teach yourself and your children the most basic concept of situational awareness.

The Boyd Cycle Chart is a modified rendering of the Boyd Cycle, credited to John Boyd. Mr. Boyd counsels that situational awareness occurs cyclicly with these steps: observe, orient, decide, and act. After teaching students in the military, emergency services, and private security careers, I have taken their input and modified the cycle’s steps to: observe, orient, decide/act, and assess. For the purposes of the chart and my kids, I added a fifth step, called begin again.

In any situation – at home, at events, at shopping centers, at the zoo, at work, with friends and family – I want my children to be safe. That’s given for most of us. But safety happens only two ways: 1) accidentally and 2) intentionally. Sometimes, all the intentional steps in the world will not keep us safe, but if we do not intend to be safe our chances decline rapidly into accidental ranges. The Boyd Cycle works equally well for a child or a military officer, because each uses it at her own level of understanding, scope, and responsibility.

In every situation, I want my children to observe their surroundings, orient (aim, adjust) their thoughts and behaviors toward their surroundings, decide and act based on their surroundings, assess their decisions, and reevaluate. I don’t merely want them to identify strangers. I want them to identify friends and emergency workers. I want them to be aware of the situation.

But let me write for a moment about applications beyond stranger-danger safety. I want my children to be aware of where they are or where they are being led. I want my children to be aware of who should be allowed to touch their bodies under very controlled and understood circumstances (for example, health and wellness). I want my children to be aware of safety hazards like deep water and weapons. I want my children to identify emergency exits wherever they are and to make a plan if something goes badly wrong.

Beyond my own kids’ safety, I want these boys of mine to be aware if someone around them is hurting physically or emotionally. I want them to recognize when they or others are having fun at the expense of someone else. If they are not aware, they can neither help nor get help. The Boyd Cycle empowers them to take stock. To aim their actions toward a specific outcome. To decide to stop or intervene or get help. To evaluate the situation so that a dangerous situation FOR ANYONE becomes less so FOR EVERYONE. This is “no means no” (which we also practice) on steroids. This is, if one person’s not having fun, no one is having fun. This is empathy and strategy and windows in dark situations.

I will use the chart to keep talking to them as they grow. They should gain capabilities in situational awareness age appropriately. Eldest is 10, and I don’t yet put in brutal focus ‘no means no’. Instead, we talk about a game of tag when one brother or friend says to stop chasing. No means no. Hear it. Aim yourself at compliance. Choose to stop chasing. Reevaluate. We talk about his rights to say no and to expect it. If anyone (even an adult, even a parent, even in good natured, ‘harmless’ fun) is doing a non-essential thing to him (think: tickling, chasing, sneaking up and scaring, or truly horrific things), he can and should say no and the adult can and should abide. As he ages and matures, the same cycle can be used to discuss any circumstance – high-risk, low-risk, and no-risk – that I can imagine.

I must entrust decision making to my little boys. And they are still little boys. They are not always with me. I cannot and will not make all their decisions for them. I can train them to use the Boyd Cycle, but I cannot guarantee they’ll make the best decisions with the information they glean from it. None of us is perfect.

But if we keep trying – all of us, old and young, every nationality, every religion, every DNA, every individual – don’t you think we have to get better at this thing called life sometime?

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