Follow TV Tropes


Too Smart for Strangers
aka: Stranger Danger

Go To
"Kids, there's nothing more cool than being hugged by someone you like! But if someone tries to touch you in a place or in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that's NO GOOD! It's your body; no one has the right to touch you if you don't want them to. So what do you do? First, you say 'NO!' Then, you get outta there! Most important, you gotta tell someone you trust, like your parents, your teacher, a police officer."
Sonic the Hedgehog, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog

A Very Special Episode with a moral about a very important issue: all adults that you don't know are ravenous, sex-thirsty child molesters waiting to lure you into the back of their white van with promises of candy and toys. This Aesop came along in The '80s as child abduction and abuse, particularly in the wake of the 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, became a national concern in the United States and shortly thereafter there was a nationwide panic about Satanic cults that were alleged to be kidnapping and sexually abusing children (though after extensive investigation, no such cults were ever actually found).

Of course, being childrens' TV shows, they have to discuss these issues in a way that's easy to understand, but without being scary — which usually just ends up being awkward. Really awkward. They can't mention any of the "worst" crimes (e.g., molestation) by name, so they generally stick to just kidnapping or "being touched in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable" (and, all together now, that's nooooo good). Expect the most graphic euphemisms you can get onto suitable-for-all-ages television, such as the "bathing suit area."


For these reasons, the bulk of the show tends to be either about "safety tips" like never talking to strangers (which usually refers to strange adults, mind you) and rejecting all forms of generosity, or about an evil kidnapper and the more fantastical things he does to his victim.

It's also worth noting that in the vast majority of child kidnappings and sexual abuse cases, the abuser is not a stranger but someone the child knows and trusts, usually because they have easy access to the child and, in custody cases (which are almost all kidnappings) the kidnapper has something to gain by kidnapping the child. The fact that this Aesop is based on faulty information renders it almost entirely useless, so it fell out of favor by the end of The '90s. A couple of high profile cases where lost children actively hid from the police or other adults trying to find and rescue them as they'd had it drilled into them that all strangers were dangerous and would kidnap them given the opportunity put the final nails into the simplistic interpretation of this idea. These days, experts advise caregivers to warn their children against "Tricky People" rather than "Strangers," putting the focus on suspicious actions rather than on whether you know someone.


Guaranteed to be utterly uncomfortable, as happy-go-lucky, fun-loving characters are forced to deal with a truly horrifying eventuality. May have the side effect of making some children unbelievably paranoid, especially if they themselves have had it happen by someone they know and trust. And Heaven have mercy on your psyche if the writers decide to disregard the "don't scare the crap out of the kids" part.

Compare Drugs Are Bad, another favorite kids-show message in the 1980s.


    open/close all folders 

Played Straight

  • The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a British organization that opposes child abuse, has run a couple PSAs that warn against pedophiles and child molesters.
    • Touched upon in I Saw Your Willy, which deals with the consequences of a boy named Alex photographing his genitals and sharing the picture online. One of the responses he gets is from a creepy man who states "I liked your willy. Can I show you mine?"
    • Pantosaurus, a cartoon T. Rex in underwear, has a catchy song informing children that they must not let strangers touch their private parts and that they must tell people they can trust when meeting such individuals.
      What's in your pants belongs only to you
      Your pants cover up your private parts!
      Your private parts belong only to you!
      If someone asks to see, just tell them no!

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • The Outside plays with this, as strangers aren't shown to be inherently bad. Nevertheless, Ryuuko hadn't learned to avoid dangerous ones (due to being raised sheltered and isolated), which is seen best in chapter 23, where she meets a "nasty dude", who's implied to be a child predator and, had Shiro not have intervened, things wouldn't have turned out well. Later, in chapter 36, she meets an old woman, to whom she goes with, because, "she could tell that she wasn't going to hurt her", said woman getting her out of the cold and looking after her.

  • Besides the Trope Namer, there was also a book release titled "Don't Talk to Strangers, Pooh" that came out in 1998. It was part of a series called My Very First Winnie the Pooh.
  • A book about sex marketed to young people titled It's Perfectly Normal took a light and humorous approach to almost everything about sex using non-threatening cartoons to illustrate masturbation, homosexuality, conception etc. The chapter on child molestation gets a bit more serious. No cartoons other than the two animal mascots admitting that this is a difficult subject to discuss. Still, at least it's not a Clueless Aesop.
  • Referenced near the end of the book The Year My Parents Ruined My Life. Katie decides to run away from her new home and attempts to fly back to California by herself. She decides to hitchhike to the airport, and is already sitting in a car with a man and wearing her seat-belt by the time she realizes it may not have been a good idea to take a ride with a stranger. Her fears are only amplified when she notices he's taking a different route and hears him say "I may need to zigzag." He quickly realizes that Katie's afraid of him and thinks it's the funniest thing ever.
    "Oh, honey, you're scared! Of me! You took a ride with someone you don't know and now you've gone and scared yourself half to death! Honey, it's okay, I'm not a serial killer, I don't have a knife in the glove compartment — check if you want, and I really do have three children of my own. And see, here we are, safe at the airport, and I didn't even have to zigzag."
    "O-oh, uhm.."
    "You're welcome, and don't you hitchhike anymore, okay?" (muttering) "Oh, my wife is going to laugh..."
  • Often used as an Aesop in various retellings of Little Red Riding Hood. Don't stop and talk to strangers, kids, or you could be eaten by a wolf. One of these retellings is the Charles Perrault version, which was written in the 17th century and thus makes this trope Older Than Steam.
  • Zigzagged in the children's book It's Okay to Say No. Some of the Big Bads are strangers, others are people the children knew. Also, there is a lot of ambiguous language, including "touched her in a way that made her feel 'very uncomfortable'", and "talking about love and sex" (which could be misinterpreted as The Talk).
  • A similar book entitled You Can Say "No" is also about this, but it's played even more seriously (i.e. an uncle who apparently makes his niece strip and play "bad games" and a little boy who's missing and "foul play is suspected").
  • There's a children's book entitled Never Talk to Strangers, which basically tells readers not to talk to strangers and defines the word "stranger". It's to be noted that the main characters are humans and the strangers and family friends are all Funny Animals.
  • A book in the Milly, Molly series, entitled "Oink", involves Milly and Molly learning that some strangers might steal Oink the pig.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Barney & Friends episode "Playing It Safe" contains a segment about stranger danger. Derek brings up the topic when talking about safety rules, which brings Baby Bop to ask about it as well. The kid cast then puts on a play of Little Red Riding Hood to teach her about not talking to strangers and, in traditional Barney fashion, it's followed by a song reinforcing the message.
  • The Brady Bunch: The Season 2 episode "The Babysitters", where Mike teaches his 7-year-old son, Bobby, about never answering the door for a stranger. Although most such lessons are taught to children as early as age 3 or 4 and Bobby may have been a bit old for the lesson — a point Robert Reed likely made to the producers — he likely went along because the demonstration was effective and made its point. (Incidentally, Alice answers the door while Mike, thinking that Bobby is still at the door, is still playing the part of the crotchety old stranger. Turned out Mike outsmarted himself.)
  • There were three Diff'rent Strokes episodes that were like this.
    • One where Arnold's friend Dudley was molested by Gordon Jump. (Don't forget that scene where the bike store owner wants the kids to scream real loud at his ass.)
    • Another where Arnold and Kimberly hitch a ride with a kidnapper who clearly intends to rape Kimberly.
    • The eighth season opens with a two-part episode where Sam is kidnapped by a grieving father.
  • Australia has for a while had the Safety House Program, where applicants stick the symbol on the letterbox only if they actually are safety houses. An education campaign back in the 80s had to remind kids to look specifically on the letterbox (not the door. And not on any cars). It came complete with a character, Clebo the Clown, and also a song that seems to have faded into obscurity, were it not for a few old memories of the lyrics:
    Look for the Safety house, Get to know the sign
    The friendly face inside the triangle
    If strangers talk to you, here's what you should do
    Just run up to the front door of the Safety House near you.
  • This sexual abuse video, complete with an actor who plays his Dirty Old Man role a little too well. At least the boy isn't ambiguous about "bad touch" and says the word "penis".
  • The trope is referenced in the episode "What Fresh Hell?" of Criminal Minds, where the "Stranger Danger" program is mentioned as probably being the single biggest enemy of child abduction cases in America, because after it was disseminated research showed that strangers were probably responsible for a minority of kidnapping cases. Far more often the abductor was friends, family, neighbours or someone at least associated with the family or child. In this case, it was a local gardener who lived a few blocks away.
  • In one of the animated "George" segments of The Go Show, meant to teach kids about right and wrong via an animated preschooler named George, he gets lost in the supermarket. One variation on this scenario involves a strange man take him by the hand and George yelling, followed by the segment ending and the narrator discussing stranger danger. Another variation involves him talking to a woman in a police uniform, which the narrator says is okay despite technically counting as talking to strangers, the police are there to help.
  • There's one segment on this featuring Fonzie from Happy Days.
  • One episode of Dateline covered this, showing a mother (via hidden camera) that her children were more than happy to receive a tour of an ice-cream van from a man they'd never seen before. To their credit, the girl did realize that they violated this trope not long after the van had pulled away, leaving the pair behind - her younger brother, unfortunately, was still focused on the free ice-cream they'd gotten.
  • In the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Parasites", as the detectives arrive at a house, Stabler asks the little girl playing outside what her name is. She warily tells him that she's not supposed to talk to strangers and when he assures her that he's a cop, she asks to see his badge.
    Stabler: Right answer again.
  • In the Mini Series I Know My First Name Is Steven, a little boy is walking home from school when a teenage boy asks him for help changing a flat tire. The kid instantly breaks into a run, not falling for the trick. Unfortunately, the older boy quickly catches up with him and throws him in the car. (This is not the titular Steven's abduction. This is Timothy White, kidnapped seven years later by the same man, as Steven had gotten too old to be attractive to him. Knowing the abuse Timmy was certain to endure, Steven escaped with him to return him to his family).

    Puppet Shows 
  • The Trope Namer: the episode "Too Smart for Strangers" of Welcome to Pooh Corner, a mid-'80s production where Winnie-the-Pooh and rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew (of all people) teach children how to not get abducted and subsequently molested. It's actually pretty blunt, with repeated mentions of "private parts" and a (delicate) broaching of the subject of ejaculation. Particularly infamous for the scene that directly addresses child molestation and how to react to it. In song. Despite being the Trope Namer, it does go into detail about how it can be people you know as well as strangers.
  • Tricky People, a 1998 video produced by Nest Entertainment, is a rather serious PSA about sexual abuse and stranger danger... which stars a silly yellow Barney-esque dinosaur named Yello Dyno. Watch it here (with snarky annotations).

    Video Games 
  • Talking to some child NPCs in Baldur's Gate 2 will get you the line "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers" or "You're a stranger."

    Web Original 
  • More than a few examples of these Very Special Episodes have been dug up by Everything Is Terrible.
  • Referenced occasionally by The Nostalgia Critic. Justified as it's his job to smash the Nostalgia Filter of all this stuff, but you've got to wonder why his parents suddenly decided to care enough and make sure he knew about stranger danger.
  • DVD-R Hell has covered a couple of these, including the trope namer. Brad's reaction to the song about molestation is a classic.
  • Best of the Worst has dug up plenty of examples, including Tricky People. All of the ones they've covered are guilty of botching the message entirely with unbelievably gullible protagonists, the implication that everyone you know is a molester, and wildly inaccurate information that serves to put kids in even more danger.

    Western Animation 
  • The TV version of The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers, from the 1980s Saturday Morning Cartoon adaptation, is more nuanced than most examples of its era. The Bumbling Dad decides to Scare 'Em Straight, until Sister Bear is reduced to a terrified wreck who doesn't want to leave the house. The Closer to Earth mother (as always) has to reassure Sister Bear that there are dangerous strangers out there, but you can't be paranoid like that. In some ways the book (while sharing this nuance) is creepier because the newspaper pictures are in black-and-white the reader has time to read the text and let it and Sister's wide-eyed expression sink in.
  • And then there's that infamous "Sonic Says" from Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog quoted above...
    Sonic: Kids, there's nothing more cool than being hugged by someone you like! But if someone tries to touch you in a place or in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that's no good. It's your body; no one has the right to touch you if you don't want them to. So what do you do? First, you say 'No!' Then, you get outta there! Most important, you gotta tell someone you trust, like your parents, your teacher, a police officer.
  • Less well-known, but no less awkward, is a PSA starring He-Man and She-Ra of all people. It really brings the awkward when it acknowledges that kids are abused by people they know already. Interestingly enough, Melendy Britt revealed at a convention in the early 2010's that she remembered hearing about a little girl who revealed to an adult that she was being abused. The girl revealed it because she learned from She-Ra and He-Man that it was okay to tell an adult and not feel shame.
  • A Care Bears episode (partially included here) went for the related message of "don't go out in public without an adult". Bright Heart disobeys Champ Bear and goes down to Earth by himself. The message is undermined by the fact that the "danger" he encounters comes in the form of Shreeky (who, ironically, is a child and a human one at that) and Beastly. Of course, Shreeky and Beastly's attempts to kidnap Bright Heart are thwarted at every turn by their own stupidity. So the Broken Aesop is "don't worry about kidnappers — they're idiots." Although the intended Aesop was "don't go skiing alone, because if you get hurt, no one will be there to help you" but they have used this trope in at least 2 episodes.
  • Get Muggsy! subverts this. Although the plot does briefly stop for Muggsy to give a lesson on strangers (complete with the "bad touch" kind of stuff), the lesson also says that some strangers (e.g., authority figures) are more trustworthy.
  • A Good Boy features a kid being lured into a hotel bed by a pedophile, but instead of having the kid rescued at the last minute or fading out on an already creepy image of the pedophile lying next to the boy, it shows the pedophile melting into the blanket, which then melts into a stripey blanket-printed ocean that jostles the kid around awhile, then a close-up on the kid's face as he weeps a single tear, which melts into the next scene.
  • My Body Is My Own, an adaption of an 80's children's book.
  • Milly, Molly had the episode "Wags", which is this but for dogs, in which Wags learns to be cautious around strangers after being captured by a "bad stranger".
  • The PSA at the end of the M.A.S.K. episode "The Ultimate Weapon" had Matt Trakker warn his son Scott that hitchhiking is dangerous because you'll never know who will pick you up. He even states that it's possible the person who picks up Scott's friend could be a child molester. Fortunately, Scott convinces his friend to walk with him and his dad.
  • One of the "Superstar" segments of Jem has a woman riding up to two girls in her car and telling them that their parents were in an accident, so they should go with her to them. Luckily, when Jem arrives the woman runs off. Jem then gives the girls advice on not getting into cars with strangers.
  • Played much more effectively, and realistically, in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "See No Evil", where a career criminal, played by Michael Gross, uses an experimental invisibility suit to pose as his young daughter's (Elisabeth Moss) imaginary friend, Mojo, in order to get around a restraining order put in place by his ex-wife.
  • In Adventures of the Gummi Bears, during Folly Day in disguise, Sunni is approached by a stranger offering candy, and she refuses citing such danger. Unfortunately, the man oily notes that he is not a stranger to her as he reveals himself to her justified alarm as Duke Igthorn, who is indeed very well known to the Gummi Bears as their greatest enemy.


    Anime and Manga 
  • Cowboy Bebop: "Lesson, lesson... If you see a stranger, follow him!"
  • The first chapter of Yotsuba&! has Yotsuba run off to explore her new neighborhood. Her father enlists the help of Fuuka Ayase, one of their new neighbors, to go look for her. Fuuka finds Yotsuba and tells her that she's a friend of her father's. As they start walking back, though, Yotsuba remembers a time her father told her to be wary of strangers, even if they say they know him. Yotsuba comes up with a wacky excuse before sprinting away in fear. It isn't until Yotsuba runs into the rest of the Ayase family and reunites with her dad that everything gets cleared up.

    Fan Works 
  • In You Got HaruhiRolled!, Kuyou somehow ends up trapped in a cardboard box, and, in a parody of Eliezer Yudkowsky's "AI in a Box" thought experiment, is reduced to begging passers-by to let her out. Shortly afterwards, Imouto and Miyoko walk by, and Kuyou tries to persuade them to release her. Miyoko is all set to do it, but Imouto refuses, bringing up this trope. So Kuyou is forced to stay in the box until a rainstorm ruins the cardboard. According to the writer of the fic, his incarnation of Miyoko is a Nightmare Fetishist, so that may have something to do with her willingness to release Kuyou.
  • Parodied to hell and back no fewer than three times in Dragon Ball Z Abridged during the Namek Saga, all three involving Gohan.
    Gohan: [after insanely creepy comments] I need an adult...
    The one who made the creepy comment: I am an adult.

  • Journey to Chaos: Nosiop, a poison master, has a habit of testing his recipes on the unsuspecting. He offers a piece of candy to Zettai, the pre-teen daughter of one of his guild fellows, and they have this exchange.
    Zettai: Dad told me not to take candy from strangers.
    Nosiop: I'm not a stranger. I work with your dad all the time.
    Zettai: That's what he told me you'd say.
    Nosiop: More for me. *eats the candy*
    Zettai: You mean it wasn't poison?
    Nosiop: Of course it wasn't. I don't poison the kids of my co-workers. *Noisop gives Zettai a second piece of candy, and, just before she eats it* That one might be poison.
    Zettai: *Stomp on his foot*

    Live-Action TV 
  • On 30 Rock, when Kathy Geiss put the moves on Jack, he recounted it to Liz, saying "she touched me in my swimsuit area" and "it made me very uncomfortable".
  • In The George Lopez Show episode "Max's Big Adventure", Max has a school play about this that has two kids being approached by a man in a Conspicuous Trenchcoat asking them where their parents are. The play is about as good as one would expect, leading George to think that Max doesn't really know about stranger dangers and testing him. The episode as a whole is more of a deconstruction of this trope.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Ted is stranded when his friend Robin happens to show up in her white news van, leading to this jokey exchange:
    Robin: Need a ride, cowboy?
    Ted: Sorry, I don't get in vans with strangers.
    Robin: Mmm, too bad. I've got candy.
    Ted: [very excitedly] Candy!
  • A recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live during the 2013-14 season has a public service officer come to a classroom to teach about stranger danger, but the kids misinterpret everything he says, making them want to find vans during recess because the people inside might have candy.
  • In The League of Gentlemen, "community theatre" group Legz Akimbo performs a play on this subject in a school. It ends with the moral that anyone you encounter could be a paedophile, so only trust people you meet online!

    Video Games 
  • In the game Evil Genius, when you successfully kidnap someone from America, you hear a radio announcement about the crime, which includes advice that people take steps "such as not accepting candy from strangers."
  • Persona 5: Childish shadows will sometimes shout "stranger danger!" at the beginning of combat.

    Web Comics 
  • Subverted in this strip from City of Reality. It initially looks like the stranger offers the young girl a ride in order to molest her, but his offer to get her home turns out to be his actual intention and he informs the girl's father that he did what anyone would've done.
  • Cinema Snob Reviews Frozen (a fan comic where The Cinema Snob reviews Frozen (2013)) spoofs this with Snob thinking Kristoff asking Anna about strangers will lead to this. He begs the film not to do it, and is very relieved when Anna's joke answer is all there is.

    Western Animation 
  • Double-subverted in a cutaway of Family Guy. Peter as a child is offered some candy by a dangerous-looking strange man in a van if he gets in. Peter declines the offer because his mom said he shouldn't. The newspaper reveals that another boy got in the van and got a lifetime's supply of candy much to Peter's jealousy. The next day, Peter receives the exact same offer from a normal-looking man and gleefully agrees. He gets no candy and gets molested.
  • Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons misunderstood these, and thought his shoulder was his "special area."
    • In another episode, Homer attempts to remember all the advice his father gave him when he was a kid.
      Abe: Homer — you're dumb as a mule and twice as ugly. If a stranger offers you a free ride, I say take it!
      Homer: Lousy traumatic childhood!
    • In The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show, Marge agrees on letting her kids roam around alone for a while in a shopping mall, under the condition that they be careful. Only they completely disregard her advice mere seconds later by leaving together with a total stranger... Subversion! Turns out he was just a friendly marketing researcher, gathering children for a Itchy & Scratchy survey. Asking nicely apparently isn't Roger Meyer, Jr's strong suit.
    • The trope is averted in "Fat Man and Little Boy" by Homer (no surprise there). He even says so himself:
    It's every parent's dream when an eccentric single man shows an interest in their child.
  • South Park:
    • Parodied, of course, with a counselor who asks if Father Maxi had stuck anything up the kids' butts. The counselor avoids the word "penis" though, asking if he had stuck anything "of his" up there, which just confuses them.
      Stan: Like... money?
      Butters: You mean, like, a goldfish?
    • There are at least two other episodes of South Park that touch on the subject, but the closest to this trope is probably "Child Abduction Is Not Funny". Tweek is nearly abducted by a man who dresses up as the Spirit of Human Kindness and tries to convince him that these sorts of morals are just paranoia. (And they partly are...) Later, the town's parents kick the children out of town for their own safety(!?) — after hearing on the news that parents are most likely to abduct their own children.note 
    • And then there's "Wacky Molestation Adventure", where the kids frame their parents for molesting them and they're arrested and sent to a facility to "cure" them of their sexual urges. While the kids form colonies of their own now that they're alone, the parents undergo brainwashing procedures that end with them believing that they actually did molest their kids.
    • And, of course, who can forget "Sexual Harassment Panda"? ("When I see one little panda pulling down another little panda's underpants, that makes me a saaaad panda!") Naturally, the kids grossly misinterpret his lessons to the point where anything a friend does that they don't like counts as "sexual harassment," and this eventually leads to a rash of time-consuming lawsuits. In the end, the mascot is forced to change his name to "Don't Sue People Panda."
    • Subverted in this scene from "Mecha-Streisand" where a disguised Barbara Streisand offers the boys a ride in her car.
      Kyle: Wait, isn't there some rule about not getting into cars with strangers?
      Cartman: No, not when money's involved, stupid!
  • In Yin Yang Yo!, an elderly female stranger approaches Yin and Yang inviting them to her home. The two call her a stranger, then complain to her for not offering free candy. However, she wins them over by promising free Wi-Fi in her house.
  • An odd version happens in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's fifth season finale, "The Cutie Re-Mark". In an attempt to avert For Want of a Nail and get the filly Rainbow Dash to perform the Sonic Rainboom, Twilight flies up to join her and tells her about everything. However, since Twilight is still one with No Social Skills and all of time/space is on the line, she comes off as incredibly creepy, causing Rainbow Dash to fly away and allow For Want of a Nail to hit again.

Alternative Title(s): Stranger Danger


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: