Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Parenting

Font Size

Keeping Kids Safe

What parents can teach.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

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 reconsidered.

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 Themselves).

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow