It’s quite easy, and surprisingly instinctual, to yell “Get down from there! You’ll break your neck!” to the spirited child out who is balancing on one foot on the back of your couch. It’s not quite as easy to say, “Don’t talk to that guy from the blue house. He gives me the creeps.” Especially to a child too young to understand what “the creeps” are.
My M.O. with Julian at this stage in his life is to pretty much pretend the whole world is awesome. Aren’t all strangers nice? And oh, did that teenager just drop a candy wrapper on the ground? It must have been by accident. But some day, I’m going to have to tell him otherwise. It’s just not fair to keep him naïve, to deprive him of street smarts.
An aside from the important topic I’m about to tackle: I was inspired by Emmie to highlight three Facebook friends that I am impressed with. My everyday friends are disqualified from this competition – I’m talking about people you haven’t seen for 10+ years. This is the first one – Robin Sax – who was my BFF for about 5 minutes in 5th grade. Well maybe it was 5 months, but I think she and I will both agree we were part of a mini-mean girls scene where friendship was highly volatile. But we’ve moved on…
I learned via Facebook that Robin Sax is the national spokesperson for the Amber Alert Registry. Her experience as a D.A. in Los Angeles, prosecuting crimes against children, has given her insights that she shares with the public in her books – six coming out in the next two years! She is an activist against domestic violence and child abuse, and an expert on the unpleasant topic of keeping kids safe from predators.
I asked Robin to give us some food for thought regarding talking to our kids about their own personal safety, a parenting task for which I’m really not feeling prepared.
She agreed I could excerpt whatever I liked from her book, and she sent me a copy. Here’s a taste:
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.
The key to keeping such talks from being scary is for parents to assume that body/personal safety discussions are not scary! Just because we, as adults, are nervous about “the world out there,” we needn’t convey our fears to our children. However, there are things kids must know before they dive into the world of independent adults.
When it’s time to discuss sexual abuse, the best way to combat the fear associated with such talks is to just start the discussion! It’s never too early to begin to give children information that can help them stay safe. However, treat personal safety like any other parenting lesson—find appropriate times, don’t tackle too many lessons at a time, and consider the child’s personal development and understanding.
And above all, do not use fear or scare tactics to educate children on personal safety. This can often backfire because it goes against the objective to empower them. Empowering them is what allows them to handle the situation, while fear tends to make them freeze, and may actually disable them if they need to act in an emergency.
Perhaps if you have specific questions about talking to your kids about safety, you can post them here. I’ll ask Robin to take a look and comment back to you. I gleaned these other tips from her book.
5 action items for parents who are ready to predator-proof their child:
- Teach young children your cell phone number to the tune of a song. My 22-month old can sing 26 letters in a row, so I have no doubt that she could master ten digits.
- Work with an older child to select an adult they will confide in if they have an issue they don’t want to talk to you about. For any of you rookie moms who are also stepmoms, maybe you can be that person for your partner’s kids.
- Make sure young children know the real anatomical names of their body parts, even if you use a nickname sometimes. The reason for this is that a child babbling in the backseat of a car that her best friend’s 14-year old brother put his cell phone up to her “nu-nu” might not get your attention. I can bet as soon as she says the word “vagina” your ears will prick up.
- Tell your child that her body is her own. They can say, “Don’t touch me there” or “I don’t like that.”
- Ask your child to tell you if someone asks them to keep a secret. Explain to older kids that responsible adults do not ask kids to keep secrets for them. Assure them that they will not get in trouble for telling another adult’s secret to Mom or Dad.
On Safety at Home I wrote about Julian’s lack of fear of “what’s out there.”
Buy Robin’s book, Predators + Child Molesters: what every parent needs to know to keep kids safe on Amazon.