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Health & Parenting

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Keeping Kids Safe

What parents can teach.

Rethinking Some of the Old Rules continued...

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).

Giving Kids the Skills They Need

A few years ago, some safety educators distinguished between "good touching" and "bad touching." But this distinction has proved largely ineffective. For one thing, it applies an objective standard to a subjective experience -- too fine a line for most adults, let alone most children. It fails, too, because it is a message absorbed only on an intellectual level, says Chaiet. When presented with a real threat, it's common to freeze up and not to be able to think or evaluate at all. When danger is present, kids need to know how to act quickly and not ponder. "The distinction between good touching and bad touching doesn't get kids to tell the person to stop," says Chaiet, "and it doesn't get them out of there."

That's why many of the programs widely used today focus on different kinds of training -- active skills that children can use in emergencies, and skills they are more likely to use because they have had some practice. Prepare and Impact Personal Safety concentrates on what Chaiet calls "adrenaline-based" training. The idea is to teach kids what to do by letting them actually feel what it's like to be threatened and to fight back.

In a typical class, a 7-year-old gets to practice talking back to and warding off a padded attacker -- striking back, running away, and yelling. The child role-plays "every level of boundary violation," from inappropriate touch, lying, and bullying, all the way up to physical assault. The process, says Chaiet, decreases a child's anxiety by increasing his or her sense of self-reliance and providing the child with a plan of action. The children are taught to use what gives them their power -- their voices and movement.

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