Keep Kids Safe
Old advice just won't cut it in today's world
Gavin De Becker
"Protecting the Gift"
parents today, our challenges in keeping our children safe
grow bigger as they do. We go from thinking "I just
want to make sure the playground is secure" to "Will
he be okay walking to the mall by himself?" to "How
can I be certain that boy will drive carefully?"
try to protect our children with the same rules our
parents taught us when we were little. But I will show you
why those rules don't work, and offer effective
Talk to Strangers"
are taught this rule when young, but the very week it's
handed down they're likely to see their parents violate it
over and over. Further, they themselves are encouraged to
violate it: "Say hello to the nice lady."
"Answer the man's question." Consequently, the
message is confusing.
are other problems with this rule. One, it assumes that a
very young child can be responsible for his or her own
protection. This is a dangerous assumption, as we once
demonstrated on a powerful segment of "The Oprah
producers and I approached several young mothers in a
suburban park to ask for their co-operation with our
experiment," says child safety advocate Ken Wooden.
"Each mother emphatically insisted that her child
would never leave the park with a stranger, then watched
in horror from a distance as her youngster cheerfully
followed me out of the park to look for my puppy. On
average, it took 35 seconds to lure each child away from
the safety of the park."
second problem with the rule is its implication that
people you know will not harm you. If stranger equals
danger, then someone you know equals safety. But the
opposite is true far more often. Friendly acquaintances
have been gifted with what every other predator must work
to gain: trust and access.
a child is old enough to understand the strategies of a
predator look like, old enough and confident enough to
resist them, assertive enough to seek help and powerful
enough to enforce the word no--a
child is too young to be his own protector, period.
third problem is, if your child is ever lost in public,
the ability to seek assistance from strangers is actually
the single greatest asset she could have.
McDonnel is a mother who has regularly encouraged her son,
Henry and Quinn, to talk to strangers from a young age
(seven or so). She will give each boy assignments such as,
"Can you get directions to the nearest frozen-yogurt
place?" Then she stands back and observes as her son
selects a person to ask. Afterwards, they discuss why he
chose the person, how the exchange went, if he felt
comfortable and so on. Her sons have safely rehearsed all
kinds of encounters with people.
a result, the instincts about people that these boys have
developed make make them less likely to be victimized then
someone taught to never talk to strangers.
important thing, of course, is to choose which strangers
to take to and that brings us to the next misguided rule.
You're Lost, Go to a Police Officer"
this popular maxim to a very young child ignores several
facts. First, many identifying credentials,
insignia, badges and nameplates tend to be worn above the
waist, but a young child mainly sees a world of legs.
Second, depending on where the child is lost, it could
take a while to find a police officer.
is one rule, however, that reliably enhances safety: Teach
children that if they are ever lost, go
to a woman.
A woman is highly unlikely to be a sexual predator. Also,
if approached by a small child, a woman is more likely
than a man to get involved and stay involved.
wouldn't call this next item a rule, but rather a
commitment you can make to you child: "I will never
send anyone you do not know to pick you up without telling
you about it ahead of time. If anyone unexpected ever says
'You mother or father sent me,' do not go anywhere with
that person, even if they say your parents have been hurt
or are in trouble."
Lessons to Teach Your Children
Honour your own feelings. If someone makes you
uncomfortable, even a "friend," that's an
We (your parents) will be receptive to hearing about any
experience you've had, no matter how unpleasant.
It's okay to be assertive, even to defy adults, if you
feel threatened. Teenage girls especially should learn
that "No" is a complete sentence. They don't
have to justify it.
Know how to ask for help--and always ask a woman.
It's okay to scream, to run, even to strike out if you are
If a man tries to force you to go somewhere, you should
yell "Help! This is not my father!" (because
onlookers seeing a child scream or even struggle are
likely to assume the adult is a parent).
If someone says "Don't yell," the thing to do is
yell, and if someone says "Don't tell," the
thing to do is tell.
Fully resist ever going anywhere out of public view
with someone you don't know, particularly with someone who
tries to persuade you.
Place is Safe"
is said to children, presumably to make them more careful.
Sure, there are places we don't want our kids going, but
that's not the key to their safety.
kids that "no place is safe' is counterproductive
because it implies that danger is waiting everywhere to
get them. Not only is this inaccurate but the hopelessness
of the message discourages personal responsibility. Almost
every place can be safe for our children--if they know how
they can help make it so.
final problem with this rule is that it quickly loses
credibility. When we warn children that no place is safe,
they wait for danger as if it were an event that happens.
Day after day it doesn't happen, and they soon become
desensitized to the real safety issue: the risk that
someone may try to take advantage of them.
Wander Off in Public"
this to kids makes plenty of sense--as long as we don't
rely on their compliance.
are some practical steps parents can take to reduce
anxiety about becoming separated from their child. First
is to dress small children in brightly coloured,
distinctive, easily describable outfits. The small child
in the colourful cap will be easier to spot in a crowd.
vacations in unfamiliar areas, some parents bring along
photos of their kids or have them wear ID tags, but where
passer-by cannot easily read them. Having a plan or
agreement such as "If anybody gets lost, we'll meet
at the Ferris wheel," helps make reunions happen
or later, after years of urging children not to wander off
on their own, the time comes when parents want to
encourage them to go off on their own. When that age
comes, parents can arm their children with the information
they need to enhance their safety.
your child to be alone in public does not mean allowing
him or her to make all the decisions about where and when,
walking to school as an example. You can influence the
route, and you can even monitor the trip for as long as
you feel necessary.
suggest that you walk the route with your child, ten times
if that's what it takes for you both to feel comfortable
about it. Together you can identify the safest place to
stop and ask for help or refuge. Once you've selected the
route have an understanding with your child that he'll
always stick to it. Explain that you might (particularly
in the beginning) drive along and observe your child from
time to time.
question parents ask me more is: How can my teach my child
about risk without causing too much fear? One way is to
show them that nothing is so terrible that it cannot be
much information can "prevent the child from
developing a sense of security in himself and his world,"
as Ava Siegler, Ph.D., notes in What
Should I tell the Kids? With
this in mind, I strongly suggest you give TV news an R
rating. My acronym for NEWS is Nothing Education or Worth
afraid of others is actually the fear that we are
unprepared to protect ourselves. Obviously we cannot
change or eliminate all the dangerous people in the world.
What we can change is our and our children's ability to
deal with them.
May 2000 Reader's Digest - Gavin De Becker
"Protecting the Gift"