Teaching Kids about Safety . . . Without Scaring Them

By Nikki M

When teaching kids about safety, parents tend to use scare tactics. While children shouldn't be oblivious to the world's dangers, being careless about our approach can cause anxiety rather than help. The key to successfully teaching kids to be safe is to focus on positive things: a good amount of awareness, a great deal of preparedness, and a lot of communication. 

Talk About Strangers

To a kid, it's quite simple: Strangers are someone they do not know. So when you tell them the age-old "Don't talk to strangers!” it might be useful (strange kid-less man creeping around the playground) or they might take it quite literally (great aunt visiting from across the world.)

You don't want your kid to be a wallflower that's frightened of people. In fact, you want them to be the opposite – outgoing and able to read people themselves. Strangers can look like anybody – a kind-faced young man, or a grumpy older lady. There's no way to tell what a person is like just based on how they look – which is why you want your child to pick up on social cues early on.

Introduce them to everyone you know: your neighbors, close friends, people in stores, and other places you frequent. Encourage them to join conversations rather than shushing them. Give them tasks that encourage some independence while interacting with "strangers", but in your sight. For example, let them pay for something at a store, order at the restaurant, use a library card, and so on.

Not all strangers are bad, in fact, most are good. Get them to interact with people because in the event that something bad does happen, they’ll know to react and speak up rather than stay timid and frightened. Plus, you never know when they might actually need a stranger to help. Think: getting lost in a huge, crowded amusement park.

Build Awareness

Heighten your child's awareness of what's normal and what isn't, not by telling them traumatic stories, but by simply letting them observe. Even at a very young age, talk to them about what goes on in your neighborhood or when you're out and about.

Point things out like "Oh, there's our neighbor coming home in his red car, right on time!" or "Hmm, this isn't our usual mail lady, wonder if she's sick!" or even "It's getting dark, we should take a lighted path and finish up our stroll quickly!"

 It's easier for them to avoid a potential crisis if they can pinpoint a bad situation early on. They can only learn this if you familiarize them with the daily grind.

Set Boundaries

Explain to your kids that we don't just give out personal information to anyone, that includes where we live and our daily schedules. Always have them check with you or another trusted adult in charge before getting close to or speaking with a stranger. Teach them to keep a distance when speaking to someone they don't know, especially if they’re in a vehicle. Whenever someone who isn't in charge of them offers them anything, especially food, tell them to ALWAYS refuse.

Teach them the value and importance of saying "NO" and walking away from something that does not seem right. While we teach our children manners and courtesy at a young age so as not to be offensive, make this exception. When you're not with them, always have them go with their gut feeling.

Keep up the Communication

Always ask your child about their day, and be a sincerely good listener. Kids pick up on when you're irritated or if you aren't really listening. If they see that you don't care when they're telling you about mundane or even exciting things, they're not going to speak up when something's wrong.

Share your experiences with them, too. Make up scenarios if you have to, but focus on your feelings and reactions to bad situations, and how you overcame them. The benefits are twofold: you get them to be comfortable with sharing with you, and you also teach them resilience.

When the kids are still young, discourage secret-keeping; they're not missing out on anything. Also encourage them to speak about things from the past that still trouble them. Let them know that it's never too late to bring up and solve issues.

Be Prepared

Let your child, their teachers, and caregivers know beforehand when you won't be picking them up, and tell them who will be instead. Always have a password for your child and for the person picking them up – it could be as simple as "cake" or "jiggly wiggly pig.”

Having a password is useful in case your child is excited to go with someone they know, but who shouldn't be picking them up. They’re also very practical in the event of an emergency, when you ask someone they aren't too familiar with (a friend rather than family) to get them.

Teach them your contact information: full names (theirs and yours), phone numbers, and addresses. You might think that this is an awful lot of information for kids to remember, but you'll be surprised. At my daughter's preschool, they simply had placards of children's phone numbers to be recited before they wash their hands for lunch. By the end of week one, most kids already had theirs memorized. One child even knew all of the kids' phone numbers!

Don't write something off for seeming impossible (words to live by!). If your children are very young, have them learn their contact information to the tune of the song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Remind them that this contact information is in case of emergencies (i.e. when lost and talking to a policeman), not to be given out to just anyone.

Have an “I’m lost” Plan

Let your child know what to do in the event they get lost.  Make sure they know the rules:

Tell them to stay put. Since you’ll be looking for them too, you don’t want them wandering around. Make sure they know never leave to the room or building you're in – it will definitely complicate things!

Teach them to yell and scream for attention, and to gather a crowd. If your little one doesn’t call for help, people won't know that something is wrong. You don't want them to quietly approach a single person, unless they are a police officer in uniform.

 This is a crucial step which kids should really be exercising anytime something goes wrong. You might think it's common-sense to scream for help, but kids are more likely to freeze up and go silent when they're confused and overwhelmed.

Let them know that if they must stay with someone until more help arrives (again, without leaving the premises), to try to stay with a mom with a family. This may be less intimidating than going with someone in uniform.

What are your tips for keeping your child safe? Share what you know in the comments below.

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