Is helping an old lady stranger danger? How do kids know?

Our friend’s seventh-grade son had an interesting ethical/safety dilemma and she wrote about it for The New York Time’s Motherlode.

Her son was walking home from school with a friend. An elderly woman standing on her stoop asked the boys to give her hand a moving a box inside her house. At first the boys politely declined but then she asked again. The son’s friend went up to help. She then asked him to move some recyclable containers. All turned out fine and they were on their way.

However, the event lead to an interesting discussion at our friend’s home that night – when is it safe to help someone and how do you know? Should there be just a standard answer of “no” and stay away from any strangers or should the child try to weigh how safe the situation is?

Our friend, Lisa Flam, called some experts for advice. From The New York Times:

“For Nancy McBride, safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the situation was clear-cut. Even though the woman appeared harmless, she said, children need to be taught to follow the rules consistently, because looks can be deceiving.

“Adults should not be asking kids for help,” she said, adding that women have been used to entice children and that one of the top “tricks” used to lure children is to ask them any question at all. “I don’t want the little boy to feel bad who helped her, but he made a judgment call that turned out O.K. this time, but it might not be O.K. next time. You don’t know who’s in the house with her.”

“If the woman had fallen or had another immediate need, the boys, armed with their cellphones, could have called 911, Ms. McBride said. In the absence of an emergency, she said, they should have shifted the burden to a parent or school official, because they did not know the woman or have permission to go in her home. Children, she said, don’t have the experience or judgment to make these kinds of tough calls as adults do.”

However, another expert had a different view.

“Paul J. Donahue, a clinical psychologist in Scarsdale, N.Y., who specializes in children and families, does see room for that gray area. Helping the woman would have been a reasonable, low-risk task for the boys, he said, adding, “I would have let my kids do that.”

Flam ends the article meditating on the three women held in captivity for 10 years in Cleveland, and that’s exactly where my mind went when I read the scenario. You have no idea who else could have been in that house.

I am all for helping people. And I want my kids to provide service for others, but it can’t put their safety at risk.

I agree with the first expert. I think an alternative would have been for the boys to call home and ask their parents to come and help the woman. The parents could help helped with the immediate problem and at that point a relationship could be established and maybe then the boys could help more often.  (We have two sweet neighbor middle school boys that have been helping a widow on our street. I love that they are so thoughtful of her.)

So what do you think: Should the boys have gone to help the old lady? Should they have called parents for help? Should they have not gone near the lady’s house or into it? Which expert do you think is on target? What have you told your kids about this type of scenario? (We’ve never discussed helping someone at his or her house. We always talk about not going up to cars to answer questions or give directions.)

6 comments Add your comment


June 4th, 2013
3:00 pm

Our neighborhood is the burbs and we know most of our neighbors (enough that if our son walked past their house, he would know they lived there although not necessarily their names). It seems really low risk for kids in our neighborhood to stop and help someone. In a big city in New York where you don’t know people, there might be the bigger challenge.

Still I pose the response that #1 – the boys were together and there’s substantially less risk involved with strangers when you’re not alone and #2 – had the boys not stopped, we probably would be talking about how rude they were. Remember that most abducted kids are taken by someone they know and NOT old ladies who need help moving a box! It’s the same reason we get ticked off when little kids are given pat downs at the airport. Had the kids been propositioned by healthy, young adult, there certainly they should have declined. These boys are in 7th grade. By this age, they should have some level of discretion about the safety of a situation (sounds like they did) but there’s a big difference to me if we’re talking about 12 year olds vs. 7 year olds.

Atlanta Mom

June 4th, 2013
4:37 pm

You can teach your kids to go through life scared of everything, or trust them to have some modicum of common sense. I’d say 95% of the world is good. Should we live our lives scared of the other 5 % ?
These boys were 13 years old. If they were that concerned, one could have stayed on the street, while the other went to help.
My former teenagers used to laugh at our neighbor, as he refused to answer his door if he didn’t recognize the person at the door. That seemed a lot more dangerous to me than making a potential thief think there was no one home.


June 5th, 2013
9:01 am

“Stranger Danger” is an outdated term that some police kid training classes and some children’s organizations have moved away from. We do not need to be teaching our kids that strangers are dangerous. There are many times when kids need to accept help from or talk to strangers (policeman, fireman, store clerks, etc.). We need to teach our kids, however, how to recognize predator situations and how to make good decisions regarding risks when on their own.

The majority of persons who assault, hurt or harm kids are, in fact, “people they know”, not strangers. The Child Rescue Network is trying to end the use of the “stranger danger” term. They describe it as one of the worst programs ever developed to help protect our children. They say over 90% of children under 12 who are raped are assaulted by someone they know and trust.

They have some good advice on their website.

Here are some excerpts:

“The message we need to be giving our children is that most people are good and would never do anything to hurt a child. However there are some bad people out there and if we teach our kids how to recognize potentially dangerous situations and how to react if necessary we can help them make decisions that could prevent them from being victimized. Children must learn to trust their instincts and if something “feels” wrong, they need to get away from that situation as quickly as possible, and then tell mom or dad. While we want our kids to respect people, we also need to teach our children it is okay to say “NO” to an adult when they feel uncomfortable.”

“Secrets = Blackmail: Instruct your kids that if someone asks them to keep a secret from mom and dad they should immediately tell as this is a huge warning sign. Many times predators will test a potential victim to see just how far they can go and not get caught. So any secret is potentially dangerous. Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. A surprise, such as what mom got dad for his birthday, is something that will at some point no longer be secret. The secret to worry about is the one that they are instructed to never tell. The best way to help prevent your child from being victimized is to make sure the lines of communication are always open. Your child needs to know that you are their biggest advocate and their safety is your number one concern.”


June 5th, 2013
6:26 pm

I agree with Atlanta Mom that the majority of people are good and not going to harm your child. The risk from an elderly woman must be extremely small. I know there are some evil people in the world, but I don’t recall seeing any faces of elderly women when I checked the online predator site for my area.

It is good to gradually teach your child how to handle situations. So, if your child, is 6, 7, or 8, take the opportunity to explain your own actions as you are out and about. I have seen the following example shared on if you chat with a stranger in the grocery line, share that “it is okay to talk with the stranger, but we would never get in the car with a stranger.” Explaining situations and role playing can help your child internalize their own judgment and decision making.


June 8th, 2013
10:37 am

Theodore Bundy got his victims by putting his arm in a fake cast and sling and standing by his car with an armload of books. He would ask a potential victim to open the car door for him and then –
push her inside and she was gone. Even adults should be wary of helping strangers, unless they have a buddy present.


June 9th, 2013
11:54 am

I would have wanted my child to help, as long as s/he was with a friend. I would have liked them to call me, give the address where they were stepping in to help, undermthe guise of,”My mom is waiting for us and we can’t be a minute late without letting her know.”

I think it is great when young folks help. My kids were expected to do volunteer work for “someone who needs help.” They helped with Meals on Wheels, raked the yard of the woman next door who could not do it, and my son mowed a woman’s yard who was a shut in. I take garden goodies to elderly folks in the summer. We must give our children a chance to develop empathy for others, and understand that you don’t get paid for every thing you do.