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Strange Behavior: Teaching Our Kids Important Life Skills

Have you taught your kids how to identify strange behavior? It’s an important life skill you don’t want to miss. 

Growing up, I was taught about stranger danger. My parents and teachers dutifully told me to be aware of the maleficent motives of adults that I didn’t know.

However, according to the CDC, “Someone known and trusted by the child or child’s family members, perpetrates 91% of child sexual abuse.”1  

In other words, statistics show that our kids are much more likely to be harmed by someone that we know… not a stranger who’s going to snatch them out of our front yard. Most strangers aren’t actually dangerous.

Before I had kids, a friend who became a parent first explained this new paradigm to me. I was really grateful because it made a lot of sense to me. 

So how do we empower our kids to interact with strangers? And more importantly, how do we help our kids identify what I like to call strange behavior? I’ve also heard this called tricky people. 

It’s an important life skill that all parents should strive to help their kids understand. We want our kids to be able to evaluate the behavior of others and learn to trust their gut instincts. So what exactly is strange behavior? 

stranger handing a child a lollipop

What Is Strange Behavior?

In order to teach our kids what it is, we have to define it first. 

We’ve defined strange behavior as when people act in ways that blatantly break our family rules

This way, we’re able to keep it broad and easy to adapt as our children mature. Keeping the definition simple makes it so our kids don’t feel scared about it, but it empowers them to notice differences. 

Occasionally our kids have pointed out when other families have different rules. 

For example, so-and-so was forced to finish their plate at an event. While it is different from our family, a parent forcing their kid to finish a meal doesn’t break our rules or violate my kids personally. We encourage our kids to notice and bring it to us quietly

However, if someone does break a family rule, we’ve tried to give them scripts for each situation that we practice. Writing this reminded me of a few scripts we needed to update as our kids grew older. 

Let’s look at some of our family rules. My hope is that you’ll be able to tailor these concepts to your situation and children’s maturity levels. 

Strange Behavior Rules 

Since we’ve broadly defined strange behavior as when people break our family rules, I’ve put the rules as headers and explained each concept below. 

Never Enter A Car or House Without A Trusted Adult 

When we bought a house that had a front yard with a sidewalk, we wanted our kids to be able to play outside without us helicoptering about. For the first summer, I always kept a window open or a door cracked so I could hear and always look out the door to check on them.

We told them that it was strange behavior for someone to invite them into their house without meeting Mom and Dad first. In the same way, we taught them that it was strange behavior for someone to invite them into their car. 

And we told them that if someone ever told them that they had already spoken to Mom and Dad to still come get us anyway because we would always tell them that in advance

stranger luring kid to car

Certain Body Parts Are Private

We’ve also emphasized that certain body parts are private. And we tried to tell our children what the rare exceptions will be when they do show their privates to trusted adults. 

Early on during bath time, we emphasized that another person’s skin should never touch their private parts. There should always be a barrier between a trusted adult and their privates. 

For example, one extended family watched our kids while my husband and I were at a weeklong conference. We emphasized to them that they needed to use a washcloth during bath time on all private parts.

At child well check visits a doctor should always wear gloves when examining private parts. We’ve also said that we’d not leave them alone with a doctor or medical professional until they are older. (And yes, I’ve had to advocate and tell healthcare providers that I would be with my child the entire time during a scan because of the medical trauma I once suffered away from my parents.) 

We’ve also began emphasizing to our kids that they’re always able to look away from a screen or leave the room if something makes them uncomfortable. This ranges from images that have peoples privates to TV shows that feel too scary. 

One of our kids would go commando every day if we would allow them. So this meant that we had to check every day to make sure they’re actually wearing underwear. We’ve had to emphasize that it was a strange behavior for any other adults to check their underwear because even though necessary, underwear is private. 

Boy covering his eyes watching phone
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Certain Details Are Private

In the same way, we’ve emphasized that certain topics are private because they are personal and not anyone else’s business. 

For example, one of my kids asked out loud, “I wonder if <friend’s name> in class still sleeps with a pull-up on at night?” We emphasized that the underwear people choose to wear is private because it’s around their private parts.

Similarly, as our kids have gotten older, we trusted them with information like the code to open the garage. We’ve emphasized that this is private knowledge for only our family to know to keep us safe. (And it’s an easy trial run for their maturity in case they slip up because it’s easy to reprogram.) 

As our kids use more technology, we’ll teach them to not share personal information like last names, cities, schools, etc in online settings. There’s a workshop in the #LifeSkillsNow summer camp, Season 3, that helps your kids memorize their contact info and also with whom to share it! Register for free here!

Beyond explaining what things are private, we’ve explained the differences between secrets and surprises. 

Adults Don’t Give Children Secrets  

We’ve also talked about the differences between secrets and surprises. Our kids know that they can keep a surprise quiet until the surprise happens. For example, a surprise party or not telling what a Christmas gift will be. 

However, other adults should not tell our kids secrets to keep. It is strange behavior for an adult to give a child a secret

We had an extended family member who wanted to take one of our kids on a secret adventure and we asked them to use the word special instead. To be honest, they were somewhat offended that we would ask them to not use the word secret. But we emphasized that we appreciated that they wanted to spend quality time with our child and that we were doing it to keep them safe. 

In the same way that adults shouldn’t give children secrets to keep, adults should not ask kids for help. 

kids sharing secrets

 Adults Shouldn’t Ask Kids for Help

I was skeptical of this one at first, but later embraced it. Most kids have the desire to be helpful and to please authority. And this could be an easy way to take advantage of kids with certain temperaments. 

It’s a common trick we’ve all heard on the evening news that a stranger asked a kid to help them find their lost dog

We’ve emphasized that adults should ask other adults for help. This isn’t just limited to strangers because it’s also a way someone who is attempting to groom our children could try to get them alone. 

As our kids get older, we will remind them to check with the safe adult whether that’s us a teacher, or other adult supervisor before following through on the help. 

This one closely relates to not getting into other people’s vehicles or homes without Mom and Dad being with them.

We’ve Practiced Training for Emergencies

If an adult says, “It’s an emergency and you need to come with me right now,” we’ve taught our kids that we usually have drill practices for different kinds of emergencies like fires and tornadoes.

Once my husband and I were out for an evening meeting and a tornado touched down in the town west of us. I immediately texted the babysitter and asked her to grab a twin mattress and for them to take shelter in the bathtub with the mattress over them until further notice. 

This wasn’t strange behavior because we had previously practiced sitting in the bathtub and explained that we would grab a mattress if we needed that.

More on what to do in case of a fire emergency in an excellent #LifeSkillsNow Season 3 workshop! Register for free here.

As our kids have gone to different schools and programs, we’ve prepared them for the emergency plans. For example, at school, they only go into the basement with the whole class during a tornado drill. It would be strange if a teacher invited them down without another student. 

But if someone continues to pressure them, we’ve tried to teach our kids that they can question authority respectfully

upset child

You Are Allowed to Question Decisions Respectfully 

We also allow our kids to respectfully question our authority so that they will respectfully question the authority of other people.

They may not offer a retort with an attitude, but they can ask to seek understanding about things.

Once our firstborn did tell a mother’s helper when they were asked to clean up, “I don’t have to listen to you!” I stepped in and asked him why he thought that. He explained he didn’t normally clean up until before lunch. I did explain that cleaning up is something he should obey from trusted adults

But our hope is that if someone says, “You need to get in my car right now,” our kids can stop and wonder why and feel like they have a voice to say no. 

RELATED: How to Stop People Pleasing 

No One Is Allowed to Threaten You

We’ve defined threats as when someone tries to impose a consequence if they don’t obey a strange behavior

One of my kids tried to tell me I was threatening them when I told them they couldn’t get any more toys out until they had put all the current ones out. Ha! I explained that was a natural consequence and reframed it as a when/then statement saying, “When you put away these toys, then you can get more out.” 

I learned when/then statements from the Positive Parenting Program. Learn more about it here. 

Instead, threats promise to cause pain, damage, or something hostile if something is done or not done. It’s like an ultimatum to prevent or cause them to do something. 

We’ve given some examples like

  • If you tell an adult about what I show you, I won’t talk to you anymore. 
  • If you don’t come with me, I’m going to tell your mom you were a bad listener. 

We’ve framed this as “no one” because even peers can make threats about inappropriate behavior

upset boy

No One Can Force Your Body To Do Anything 

The first time this came up for us was on Fat Tuesday when my oldest was two years old.

As we started to walk into the grocery store, a middle-aged man offered my two-year-old a doughnut. First, this was harmless behavior because it is kind to offer desserts to other people.

However, what was strange about it is when we politely declined, he got really mad and insisted that we take the donut. I just decided to walk away and he started to walk after us so I headed towards the customer service desk. At that point, he left us alone, but I kept my phone at the ready and tried to stay near associates in case we needed assistance.

This was the first real-world experience where an adult tried to force food upon one of my kids.

I don’t actually think this man had poisoned donuts. I’ve also wondered if he was mentally ill in some way. I won’t know that for sure, but we took it as an example for our kids to remind them that they have bodily autonomy, and that includes the right to choose what they eat, and what they don’t eat. I never want my kids to feel pressured to feel like they have to eat food that isn’t going to feel good in their bellies or that doesn’t meet their long-term health goals. 

You can read more about how we work to prevent picky eating here. 

We’ve also emphasized that our kids never have to hug or touch someone. While they do need to acknowledge when someone greets them, they are allowed to wave or offer a high five instead. 

Now that we’ve covered our family rules, here’s what we encourage our kids to do when strange behavior happens

What to Do When Strange Behavior Happens 

When my kids notice strange behavior, we’ve asked them to immediately come to us or a safe adult. We’ve emphasized that they’ll never be in trouble for reporting anything that seemed strange or tricky to them. 

If we, the parents, aren’t available, we’ve talked about who the safe adults are in our lives. When our kids were little, we explained that these were the folks that we trusted to help them go to the bathroom or change their diapers. As they’ve gotten older, we’ve identified that if they can’t find us at church who to ask and their Sunday school and school teachers are safe. 

Kids don’t have to keep being polite if someone shows strange behavior. We want to enable our kids to know to run away to find their trusted adult

The most important thing is that these life skills are part of a continuing conversation where the door is always open for our kids to ask us about what they are curious about

If you want your kids to learn more life skills, I’d highly recommend checking Katie’s Life Skills Now Summer Camp!

What strange behaviors have you taught your kids to identify? Share in the comments below. 

Sources

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 11). Fast Facts: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childsexualabuse/fastfact.html 

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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