Keeping Kids Safe
What parents can teach.
Sept. 18, 2000 -- My daughter is 4 years old, and I knew it was time to
worry. She's beautiful and trusting and weighs 30 pounds. Would she have any
idea what to do if someone tried to overpower her? Would she muster the courage
to scream and kick?
Those are the kinds of questions that haunt parents these days, and I knew
it was high time to do something about my concerns. But where to start? Every
day, it seemed, there were "teachable moments," yet so far I'd done no
conscious teaching. What about all those personal safety tips that children
should be drilled in -- "Don't talk to strangers" and the like?
Instead, I was worried about what I might be teaching without thinking about it
-- my polite exchanges, for instance, with the male stranger in the supermarket
checkout and the panhandler on the street?
What messages was my daughter taking away from such encounters?
FBI statistics indicate that last year 2,100 juveniles were reported missing
every single day -- that's 750,000 for the year. Of these, the National Center
for Missing and Exploited Children listed more than 114,000 cases involving
physical threats or harm and nearly 32,000 cases as involuntary kidnappings or
abductions. Our children are at risk. And, like me, most parents worry
endlessly but feel uncertain about what to teach our children and how to
protect them without scaring them to death.
It's hard for parents, says Donna Chaiet, president and founder of Prepare
and Impact Personal Safety, a national series of hands-on child safety
programs, because they are so uncertain about their own ability to protect
their children. "Parents aren't nervous about showing a child how to safely
use scissors or cautiously cross the street, because we know how to do those
things," she says. "But when it comes to child [personal] safety, we
have enormous anxiety about how to do it right."
Rethinking Some of the Old Rules
Talking to people like Chaiet, I realized that I needed to relearn some
things myself. A lot of what I was taught when I was young has since been
Take the old notion of "stranger danger." It turns out that of all
children that are reported as kidnapped in the United States each year, fewer
than 100 of them were the victims of someone they didn't know at all, according
to Gavin de Becker, a leading expert on predicting violent behavior and the
author of the best-selling book "Protecting the Gift." Besides,
"stranger" isn't an easy concept for a young child to grasp. At what
point in a conversation does someone cease being a stranger? What about that
man in the grocery store line?
De Becker says that the real safety issue isn't strangers, but strangeness
-- inappropriate behavior and a child's vulnerability to the process of being
persuaded. Rather than concentrating on the distinction between stranger and
friend, says the new thinking, we should educate our children about common
lures and ploys; teach them to trust their own feelings when something isn't
quite right; and reassure them that it's OK to say no to adults -- including
those they may know well -- who do or say something that makes them feel
uncomfortable or scared (see Your Children Can Help Protect