How 'stranger danger' is hindering our children's happiness

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

In this age of mobile phones and having the world in our pockets, it's common to  find ourselves increasingly socially isolated. But are we also passing this down to our children?

A study by the University of British Colombia found recently that the key to everyday happiness is talking to strangers.

You know all those awkward exchanges we avoid on buses and in bank queues by checking our emails or scanning Instagram? That's what we're missing. This "absent presence" allows us to escape the confines of our immediate surroundings but it also diminishes the need for us to engage with others in our immediate social world, reducing the likelihood of us smiling.

Experts assessing the subjects in the experiment found those with phones did smile, but those without phones had more "duchenne", or genuine, smiles. And genuine smiles mean more genuine happiness.

As parents, many of us grew up with the idea of "stranger danger", and were taught not to talk to strangers, but what if talking to strangers is the key to happiness? How do we balance teaching our children to keep safe with teaching our children to look beyond themselves in order to be happy?

Our messaging around talking to strangers can be confusing for children, says Giuliett Moran, psychologist and founder of Empowering Parents.

"The difficult thing about 'stranger danger' is that we interact with strangers every day, whether it's at the shops, saying hello to people you pass on a walk or meeting new people at the park," says Moran.

"It can then become confusing for a child when we sometimes want them to be friendly and build their social skills and other times tell them to be wary of strangers."

Strangers can be anyone from new children at school and the man who sells you your bread to a bus driver or a lady feeding the ducks in the park. It's important for children to learn how to interact socially to ensure they don't feel anxious in these situations.

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Of course, it's also important to teach children how to keep safe, and to learn to read situations.

Moran suggests a healthy approach can be to teach children some rules around keeping safe, rather than labelling people as safe or unsafe.

"I believe that a great balance is the approach of teaching children 'safety rules' and then introducing children to the concept of 'tricky people' and being cautious of anyone who breaches one of their safety rules," she says.  

Moran says tricky people can be defined as those who make you feel uncomfortable, those who ask children for help instead of grown-ups, or those who break safety rules.

As for encouraging our children to talk to the people we meet throughout our days, Moran says parents can support children to build their social skills, understand the benefits of saying hello to people they meet and know when it's okay to tell someone their name – and when to just smile, wave and keep moving.

Teaching children how to interact with strangers in a healthy and positive way is important, says Moran, because children will encounter strangers everywhere.

"The benefits of supporting them to build their social skills as well as their emotional intelligence will make these transitions easier and allow them to feel safe and secure around new people whilst also being cautious and equipped with adequate strategies to use when their safety rules are violated," she says.

Perhaps a good first step in teaching our children to how to interact with those around us is to model that behaviour ourselves - yet another good reason to put our phones away.