Praseetha Rajesh and her husband with their two girls Anushka and Anvi. The couple claim they have made it a point to educate them about stranger danger. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Parents in the UAE have reacted with shock and shared tips on how they protect their children after a ‘stranger danger’ social experiment in Sharjah found kids failing as they agreed to enter an ice cream van with the stranger vendor in lieu of a free ice cream.

The Sharjah Child Safety Department (CSD) on Wednesday unveiled “an alarming reality” about the lack of children’s awareness about their safety, as demonstrated in the social experiment conducted in partnership with Sharjah Police at Kshisha Park.

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The experiment showed that only one amongst 37 children hesitated to enter the ice cream van to accept a free ice cream from a stranger. Everyone else readily accepted the offer.

The Sharjah Child Safety Department's experiment found all but one of 37 children showing no hesitation in entering an an ice cream van after being offered a free ice cream. Image Credit: Supplied

Parents that Gulf News spoke to said that the experiment was an eye-opener for families about the need to reinforce the message about stranger danger. “Oh My God!,” exclaimed Praseetha Rajesh, a mother of two, when she read the news. “It instantly made me think about my little one. I wanted to recheck with her if she remembers what we had taught her about stranger danger. I presented this scenario and asked her if she would go with the uncle offering a free ice cream. Much to my relief, she said no, because she doesn’t know him. But again, I was wondering if she would fall for peer pressure if she sees her friends doing it. When I asked her about that, she said she wouldn’t do it.”

Rajesh, a workplace culture consultant in Dubai, said she had taught both her daughters Anushka, 15, and Anvi, four, about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ as well. “I remember it really helped when Anushka was just eight. She felt uncomfortable about the way a guest behaved with her and she came running to me to complain about it. Anvi is also clear about this concept. I feel grateful that they understand the need to be careful with strangers and are confident to tackle the situation. Also, we taught them our mobile numbers from a very young age.”

Apart from the instructions from parents, Rajesh said her children had also learnt about these topics through some of the shows they watch. “It is important that parents choose shows with such age-appropriate content for children to learn from them as well,” the Indian expat added.

Scream, seek help

Hena Khan, founder of UAE Mums Group, said the report also became a topic of discussion among many mothers on the forum. She detailed how she taught her son, now 15, about safety.

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Hena Khan and her husband with Ziane. Image Credit: Supplied

“Every single time he has left home, we have had this routine where he had to repeat that he would not get into a stranger’s car. We had a set of questions we repeatedly asked him. For instance, if a stranger said he knew his mom, dad, or uncle and claimed there was an emergency and that he should go with them, what should he do? Despite his annoyance, he would give us his assurance with an emphatic ‘No’.”

The Pakistani expat said she and her husband also taught their son, Ziane, to scream for help if needed and not to go alone even with security guards when he is hanging out with friends.

“We ensured our son memorised important phone numbers and taught him to seek help from women in case of any emergency, as we felt more comfortable with that. Even at 15, we maintain this routine though he gets irritated. I believe the UAE is the safest country in the world. And I have no doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t teach our kids how to be safer.”

Online strangers

British expat and father of three, Jon Bramley said he and his wife still “drill the importance to be aware of stranger danger” into their youngest child Anabel, who is now 11.

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Jon Bramley with his daughter Anabel. Image Credit: Supplied

“Back home, it is sort of drilled into children after some well-publicised cases about strangers. When we moved to the UAE, Anabel was just three. But, we still do the same with her.”

Bramley, vice president of communication with GEMS Education, said the parents have kept a secret password for her which she needed to be supplied with if anyone other than a family member goes to pick her up. “Living in a village in the UK, we used to run to ice cream vans, but generally we were accompanied by adults. Anabel hardly spends time outside without adult supervision.”

“Every evening, as a family we discuss various issues our 11 year old might face. She has a phone now. So she is contactable. We are very aware of the dangers of online and social media stalking, a new challenge we didn’t face as kids. We remind her not to give away her identity. She is savvy and well-aware of these dangers. We want her to be confident but also cautious,” he added.

Insights from experts

Parenting coach Ankita Puri and communication and fitness coach Safa Majeed shared valuable advice on teaching children about stranger danger.

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Parenting coach Ankita Puri says children should be educated about stranger danger early on. Image Credit: Supplied

Puri emphasised the importance of starting these lessons early.

“Toddlers and tweens need to be taught to differentiate between known and unknown individuals,” she explained. Storytelling can be an effective tool, allowing children to learn through their favourite characters. She advised against over-hyping the fear bit as it can obstruct the child’s confidence. Puri pointed out that teens too are vulnerable to stranger danger due to emotional challenges and social adjustments. She recommended role-playing with family members to reinforce safety rules and integrating these conversations into everyday activities like TV time.

“Schools should also include sessions on dealing with strangers, similar to lessons on good touch and bad touch,” she added.

Safa Majeed stresses on the balance between caution and socialisation. Image Credit: Supplied

Majeed underscored the balance between caution and socialisation. She provided practical tips for parents which they can start using when kids are as young as four years:

1. Maintain clear and constant communication with children about their daily activities and interactions.

2. Establish a secret code with your child to use in emergencies.

3. Initiate role-plays to see how your child would react in various situations, then provide guidance.

4. Use stories and visuals to teach children that not all strangers are good and set clear boundaries.

5. Collaborate with other parents to role-play different scenarios, helping children understand without succumbing to peer pressure.

Majeed also stressed the need for parents to be present and engaged, avoiding distractions from gadgets and work. Both experts agreed that the key is not to panic but to create a supportive environment where children feel comfortable discussing their experiences and learning to navigate their social world safely.