For years, "don't talk to strangers" was a mantra parents repeated to keep kids safe as they were shuttled off to school – but increasingly, police and experts are looking for something better.

That's because in most cases, a stranger isn't the problem. Overwhelmingly, children are assaulted or abducted by someone they know.

Hamilton police have begun using a new phrase to teach kids about those dangers — "tricky people" — that focuses more on behaviours than a specific relationship. Officials are rethinking the way they talk to children and the warning signs they use in the hopes of better preparing kids for the real world.

"Kids aren't going to figure this out on their own. It's a teaching process," said Hamilton police Sgt. Barry Mungar, the service's crime prevention coordinator.

"An alert and cautious mind is always their best defense."

While police are trying to introduce the new term into their local teaching to kids and parents, neither of Hamilton's school boards have adopted it.

According to Statistics Canada, only 12 per cent of offences involving children are committed by a stranger. In 44 per cent of cases, the person is an acquaintance of the victim, and 38 per cent of the time, it's a family member.

Who should kids trust?

You don't to look any farther than the recent case of Whitby's John Leek to see the danger that someone who is in a position of power can represent.

Leek – a former principal, teacher and truancy counsellor with the Hamilton and Peel school boards – pleaded guilty to 10 counts of indecent assault involving young boys last month.

"Really, this is focusing on the fact that children should be taught not to just trust a person simply because they're an adult or in a uniform," Mungar said. "We try to teach kids that adults around them should respect boundaries."

Pattie Fitzgerald, who runs child safety awareness classes called "Safety Ever After" in Santa Monica, Calif., has been teaching kids about "tricky people" for years.

"My curriculum is so far away from 'stranger danger.' It's not strangers, it's people who trick us into doing something we shouldn't do," she said.

"Teaching them to be afraid of someone they don't know doesn't protect them from uncle creepy."

What sorts of things does a 'tricky person' do?

So what kinds of "tricky" behaviours should parents tell kids to watch out for? Mungar says they include:

  • Kids being asked to keep a secret.
  • An adult asking kids for help, possibly with tracking down a lost pet.
  • An adult pretending to be injured.
  • An adult luring in a child with candy, money or an animal.
  • An adult feigning a family emergency and saying "you have to come with me right now."

Hamilton police also advise families to establish a "secret password" between family members that lets a child know the person they're dealing with is safe.

"Only safe persons should know the password and the password should be changed occasionally," a news release from police reads.

Fitzgerald says parents also need to make sure they talk with the people who are going to spend time with their kids, like teachers, coaches and babysitters. That way they can be aware of potential problems.

"You have to pay attention to who is paying attention to your kid," she said. "Their job is to learn what is okay, your job is to minimize the risk."

Though "tricky people" as an educational term is gaining traction in Canada and the U.S. (Fitzgerald says the term is very well received in her classes), neither the public nor the Catholic school boards in Hamilton use it.

Mungar says community safety officers do teach it when they visit elementary school classrooms, but it hasn't been adopted in any widespread way by either school board.

adam.carter@cbc.ca