My “serious” conversations with my children never seem to go according to the textbooks.
They usually bring up the big questions when I’m completely distracted — “Can girls marry girls?” while I’m weaving through traffic, or “What if there were no universe?” as I’m drifting off to sleep. I tend to go for short answers: “Yes” and “I have a headache.”
In recent days, we’ve had to tackle a subject that makes most parents squeamish: “stranger danger.”
In the past, we’ve had conversations about not accepting rides from strangers and the like, but I was careful not to overplay it so they wouldn’t be afraid of everyone they met.
The recent spate of attempted abductions  has added urgency to the message.
The reactions of the children I know have been curious. Some thought the stories might be made up. Some had a false sense of bravado — “I’ll kick them and beat them up” — or invented some scenario where they’d trick the predator into getting caught.
My son had a similar response when I explained why he couldn’t cross the street by himself at age 2. He decided he would just stop an oncoming car with his hands.
That argument was easy to counter. A car weighs a ton, he weighed 25 pounds.
But how do you explain people who want to willfully hurt them — without scaring them to death?
A few weeks back, several in-town neighborhoods were hit with car burglaries, including our friend’s house. My kids were there when it was discovered, and at first it was a big adventure. They searched the neighborhood for “clues.” But as night rolled around, everybody got a little jumpy.
For days afterward, my kids would go on high alert whenever they heard a car door slam, or our neighbors putting out the trash, or any other odd noise outside.
But burglars are one thing. They mostly just want your stuff. Abductions are entirely different.
While I was pondering how to approach this topic, my kids did it for me. They read through the letters sent home from school and reported the gossip from their friends.
Then my son asked: “Why do they want to take kids? What do they do?”
I paused. “There are just people in the world who do mean things to kids,” I said finally. Then I reiterated all our lessons about never taking rides from someone they didn’t know, about never even approaching a car when a stranger beckoned, about yelling and running and finding help from an adult they knew if someone threatened them. They seemed satisfied, but apprehensive.
Therapist Christine Washo, who works with abuse victims through the county’s Children’s Advocacy Center, says the best approach is to be calm and matter-of fact, but not sugarcoat reality.
One rule of thumb: Only answer what children are asking. If they say, “What do the mean people want to do,” say, “Take them and hurt them.” If they ask for specifics, give them a little more information.
Take advantage of teaching moments. Washo might use a news report about a recent shooting and say, “Sometimes there are people who’d take you and shoot you. I don’t know why,” without going into great detail.
It’s important to “make it real,” she says. “The reality is bad things can happen.”
Kids understand even in preschool that there are people who hit others, “who choose bad behavior,” she says.
It’s a tough balance, because you also want them to feel safe. You have to reassure them you will do your best to protect them and give them the tools to protect themselves, she says.
Children also need to understand the definition of “stranger,” and that there are more good people than bad, according to www.mychildsafety.net . The website provides several role-playing scenarios to help.
The key is to instill confidence, not fear.
Still, some have a bit too much confidence. Washo says it’s common for kids, particularly in this age range, to imagine being a superhero or “having abilities that are greater than they actually possess.” It may be their way of trying to protect others: “I’ll get this bad guy off the streets.”
She advises parents to suggest a Plan B: “That would be great if you could beat them up, but if you find you can’t, what else can you do?”
Among her suggestions: Yell a lot. Scream, “You’re not my mom, you’re not my dad!” People don’t respond as quickly to a simple “Help!” or may think kids are just playing a game, she says.
Remind them that adults usually don’t need a child’s help to find a lost dog or get directions. That they should be aware of their surroundings and not listen to an iPod as they walk down the street.
And being a little frightened is OK, Washo says. It’s part of making wise choices. Being too comfortable can put you in riskier situations.
If your child is nervous about playing outside, go outside with them. Keep them in groups. Alter your routine if needed, picking them up from school instead of letting them walk home alone if it makes them feel more secure.
Get advice from other parents, Washo advises, and trust your instincts. In the end, you know your child best.
'Stranger danger' tips:
- Use the buddy system. Avoid walking anywhere alone.
- Trust your instincts. If you feel you are being followed or something is not right, seek help immediately.
- If a stranger approaches you, you do not have to speak to him. Never approach a stranger in a motor vehicle. Just keep walking. Do not accept candy or any other items from a stranger. Never walk off with a stranger no matter what he tells you.
- If a car is following you, try to remember the license plate number and immediately tell a trusted adult.
- If a stranger grabs you, do everything you can to stop him from pulling you away or dragging you into his car. Drop to the ground, kick, hit, bite and scream. Do whatever it takes to attract the attention of others who can help you. Scream, “This is not my dad” or “This is not my mom.”
Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues, social services and the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her family column appears in the paper every other Tuesday. Leave a comment below, contact Julie at 351-5226 or firstname.lastname@example.org  or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jawurth.
Urbana school district crossing guard Michael Walley helps students and adults cross the intersection of Vine and Oregon Streets in Urbana in September 2009. John Dixon/The News-Gazette