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Talking to Kids about Personal Safety

Excerpted from the book “Predators and Child Molesters: A Sex-Crimes DA Answers 100 of the Most Asked Questions”.

Two types of safety education work well for parents and children and can easily be added to their family’s safety plans: pre-planned discussions and spontaneous opportunities to teach.

The first focuses on a particular issue and reinforces it over a period of time, say over a couple weeks to a month. For example, an appropriate safety lesson for a family with young children (ages five and younger) is to help them memorize key telephone numbers, such as Mom’s cell, the home phone, and grandparents’ or caregivers’ numbers.

Without making it obvious that it’s a safety lesson, teaching a child a telephone number can be made into a song or a game and can be easily practiced.

There is no magic age to begin safety discussions. They should be part of your parenting as soon as your child can understand what you’re talking about. The only aspect that will change over time will be the level of discussion. For example, let’s take a discussion about getting a “bad vibe” from someone. If you’re talking about this with a young child, you’d use language like “people who make you feel yucky.” Discussions about “going to get a grown-up before you answer the door,” which would be appropriate for a young child, can be changed to “how to answer the door” for an older child.

While actual sit-down conversations that deal with safety may be necessary only every few weeks to once a month, there are countless opportunities for spontaneous discussions and other techniques to reinforce prior lessons. For example, at least once a week when I come home from work, I simply ring the doorbell to see what my daughter (and my nanny) will do when someone comes to the door. The results give me peace of mind as I see that what I’ve taught them is actually sinking in. It also gives me the opportunity to tweak our family safety discussions based on their response. And of course, I am assessing how well my daughter’s nanny responds, so I can be confident that she’s providing the supervision I expect.

Parents should make a family rule: “Don’t answer the door unless it is Mommy, Daddy, or [a very short list of adults].” The reason is that sometimes certain people are welcome in our homes and sometimes they are not. For example, the plumber whom a child knows may be welcome when there is a plumbing emergency but would not be welcome to just drop by and say hello without notice or permission.

Parents can also include personal safety suggestions at other times and use real-life opportunities to reinforce them. For example, a week before a family vacation to Disneyland is a logical time to discuss what your children would do if they got lost and to talk about “stranger danger.” Then, when you arrive at the park, you can make a safety plan consistent with what you’d discussed a few weeks earlier. If you let the kids participate, they can feel a sense of ownership, which encourages them to follow the plan. You can point out meeting places, whom to call for help, and what they should do if they get lost.

Spontaneous teaching moments come up every day and offer opportunities to explore the idea of safety. For instance, if you’re crossing the street and see a homeless person begging for money, don’t simply walk faster, urging your child to keep going. Instead, ask, “Does that person make you uncomfortable?” If the answer is yes, ask, “Why?” You can then talk about asking for money and switch the scenario: “Well, what do you do if someone isn’t asking you for something but instead is offering you money, candy, or a gift?” Or you can discuss the “uh-oh” feeling that the homeless person may have triggered so the child can begin to find his or her inner “uh-oh,” a warning that something doesn’t feel right.

We must remember that we are our children’s most important teachers.

Kids watch every move we make, question our choices, and observe the results of our actions. We must be sure that we are walking the walk, talking the talk, and not giving mixed messages. For example, it is inconsistent to teach our children not to talk to strangers then at the grocery store tell them, “Say hi to the nice cashier” (who is a stranger). Instead of using stock, outdated one-liners, we need to teach children how to interact safely, recognize potentially dangerous situations, and give them the tools to escape them.

Read more about Robin Sax’s work to protect children and educate parents at RobinSax.com.

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