It’s hard, sometimes, to separate paranoia from real worries when it comes to your children. After all, no matter how far-fetched the danger sounds, it happened to somebody’s child somewhere – and you’d prefer your own children not become a similar cautionary tale. Still, the news seems determined to frighten every parent everywhere with lurid tales of new dangers to your children that inspire some parents to contemplate locking the kids up and home schooling them until they’re approximately thirty years old.
Of course, some dangers are very real – and also very easy to teach your kids about. Most strangers are well-meaning, decent folks just like you who might be approaching your child for any number of legitimate reasons – but drilling your children in the right way to react to strangers is one of the most effective ways of keeping them safe.
A note on your child’s development and capabilities, first: Children younger than ten often have great difficulty judging distance and location – they are easily lost when out of their familiar territory. They also often cannot read street signs or understand what they mean. Young children should of course never be unsupervised, but when talking to them about safety keep these limitations in mind and don’t assume they will be able to leap into “action hero” mode when a stranger approaches them.
Safety in Numbers
The simplest way to protect against predators is to make sure your child understands that they should always walk in a group, never alone. Child predators will almost always avoid groups of children because they are difficult to predict or control (as any parent knows!).
The Power of No
You’ve raised your child to be polite and respectful with adults. You must also stress that when a stranger approaches them when they are alone – or even when they’re not alone – these rules do not apply. Tell your children that under no circumstances should they
- Accept a ride in a car from a stranger.
- Accept any gifts or candy from someone they don’t know.
- Allow a stranger to follow them – if they notice someone unfamiliar following them, they should not hesitate to run away and shout for help.
- Allow a stranger to hang around schoolyards or playgrounds – always alert a trusted adult when they observe someone they don’t know.
- For older kids, keep a prepaid cell phone in an outer pocket of a clear bag (a backpack or a gym bag) that they can easily reach in an emergency.
We often aren’t aware how many things our children carry might have their address and name clearly displayed. Teaching your children to keep these items private will help, but also tell them that even if someone knows their name and claims to know their parents, if they don’t recognize them they are still a stranger. Tell your children they will never, under any circumstances, get in trouble for being “rude” to an adult they don’t recognize. Many predators use this trick – implying their parents will punish them for not doing as they are told.
Sometimes these safety tips result in some embarrassment or difficulty for an innocent party. Most people will understand why your children reacted the way they did. Better to have an awkward moment with someone than to put your children in danger.