If 20 children were on a playground, how many would follow a stranger with a puppy to his car?
HLN’s Kyra Phillips put 20 children to the "Predator Test." With the permission of their parents, an HLN producer, posing as a predator, tried to coax them off the playground, away from their parents. All the moms who participated in the four test sessions told HLN they had warned their children about wandering off with strangers. But would it make a difference?
When the HLN producer walked onto the playground with a puppy, many children ran straight for him. It was as though they couldn't resist the lure of a cute dog. Then our producer/predator made his pitch. He tried to direct the children back to his vehicle.
“I need to go give him some water. Do y’all want to come with me and help me feed him and give him some water?” he asked.
"I want to feed the dog!" one of the boys answered.
So off they went, exiting the playground while their mothers watched in disbelief. The children walked through a parking lot and stopped at the HLN producer's SUV, chatting along the way. The producer opened the back of his vehicle, and the kids still didn't sense any danger.
Then, without much effort, our producer convinced one of the children to crawl into his dog's crate. His mother said her heart was pounding.
“We talked about strangers and he knows not to talk with strangers or go with them,” his mother said. “We didn’t speak about strangers with pets … I’m thinking we need to go over some more scenarios and just let him know it’s not OK.”
That’s why “stranger danger” is more like “scared straight,” Dr. Rebecca Bailey told HLN.
“The words ‘stranger danger’ are somewhat out of vogue these days … because what it connotes is someone that looks totally different, maybe the toothless people you see on TV as an abductor. You want kids to know that it’s not necessarily like that. In the Dugard case, it was a couple," Dr. Bailey said.
That is why she says it's essential for parents to test their children.
"Part of developing critical thinking is to put kids in situations, scenarios, that are safe to teach them and to help them have the skills to deal with challenging situations,” she said.
A total of seven children followed the undercover predator to his car, and child after child told HLN that the producer "looked like a nice guy." If he took care of animals, “How could he hurt a kid?” one of the girls rationalized. When asked what a “stranger” looked like, one of the boys simply answered, "Mean."
On hearing the children's responses, one of the mothers elaborated on the concept of a stranger and who they should look out for. “Everybody. You don’t know who somebody is. Just because they may be nice, that’s just something to lure you in. I have to protect you and you have to protect yourself. So next time, just ask me so I know where you are. I was scared.”
"They could be totally nice, but it’s a trick. They are nice 'til they are not," another mom explained.
The parents ran down the possibilities of what could have happened. The gravity of what he had done drove one boy into the arms of his mother.
“Kids are in the moment, and the word of a puppy is like a shiny object. They’re not really thinking with part of their mind … because critical judgment hasn’t developed yet. They’re instantly thinking, ‘Oh puppy.’ That’s why I’m glad you guys are doing this," Bailey said. "We do know that experiential learning helps people do things and learn things in a different way. So my guess is that any of these kids that went probably will never do that ever again.”
The other 13 children who walked away from our undercover producer had one reason why they didn’t go with him: "You never talk to strangers!"
Most of the children who refused to go back to the truck ran away or made a bee-line to their mothers. "My mom talked to me about strangers, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint her," one child said.
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Ben Bamsey and Ed Parry contributed to this report.