With back to school just around the corner, many of our kids will be asking for increased freedom as they advance a grade; freedom to walk to and from school alone, freedom to bike to the park alone, even freedom to cross the street without holding your hand (cue sobbing).
But mom… I’m in grade FIVE now. As though shaving and College applications are imminent.
Pushing limits and spreading wings is a normal and healthy part of growing up, but it’s often scary for parents. How do we teach our kids to beware of danger without scaring the pants off them? How do we teach them that not everyone, even adults, can be trusted to keep kids safe?
When today’s generation of parents was growing up, we learned about “street-proofing” and “stranger danger.” But experts say those terms are outdated and misleading because most children aren’t typically harmed on the “street” or even by strangers. The greatest danger, statistically, comes from people they or their families know and trust.
So now we talk about “personal safety”; and while it can be an uncomfortable conversation, it’s a necessary one.
To begin, parents should remember to keep the content age-appropriate and resist the temptation to terrify their kids as a way of teaching them about what could happen. We need to start talking about safety as soon as kids have even a basic understanding of what that is. Start with how to cross the road properly and work your way up to talking about other people and personal space. Recognize that keeping your kids safe is an ongoing process, not a one and done talk. Conversations and content will evolve but the basic message will remain the same: this is how to stay safe when you’re out of sight of mom and dad or a trusted adult.
Good resources to kick start your family’s personal safety conversation include:
Tips for topics to discuss with your children, from the Ottawa Safety Council
What to teach and tell your children about their safety, from Toronto Police
How to recognize and act on the “uh-oh” feeling when you know something’s not right.
Abduction Prevention Tips from Child Safe Canada
Rules for Kids from the Children’s Health & Safety Association of Canada.
The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers helps kids learn to use common sense with strangers in a non-threatening way
I Can Be Safe introduces kids to the idea that strangers aren’t the only ones who can hurt us,
and helps children learn to trust their instincts
No Means No! is targeted to three to nine-year-olds and covers the rights we have to our own bodies and personal boundaries.
Practicing “what if” scenarios with your kids can help them recognize potentially dangerous situations and think through how to respond safely:
What would you do if someone asked you to get in their car to show them where the store is?
What would you do if someone asked you to help them look for a lost dog?
What would you do if the lady who cuts your hair offers you a ride home?
Practice will help kids feel empowered and build their confidence.
Other parents who’ve had “the talk” are often a good resource as well so ask your friends when and how they’ve talked to their kids about personal safety.
For families with both little and big kids a family password is a good strategy. Little kids will learn that anyone who tries to pick them up from school, claiming mom or dad sent them, must have the secret password. If they don’t have it, you don’t go.
For families with bigger kids, a password or code phrase can be used when parents call or text to check in on kids at parties or when they’re hanging out with friends.
Tammy Oswin’s eleven and fourteen-year old daughters have a code word they plan to use if either of the girls is in a bad situation.
“I will text them ‘how is everything going?’ and they reply back with the code word if they want me to come and get them,” says Oswin. “The code word is a word they would usually answer with so if anyone sees it they don’t have to feel uncomfortable.”
My kids know (probably too well) that I have no problem being the bad guy, so if they need a way out of a situation they can always say “my mom won’t let me” and I will back them up.
Despite the fear and hysteria a missing child can cause within a country or community, stranger abductions remain extremely rare and are, without question, every parent’s worst nightmare. In Canada, abductions account for less than 1% of all missing children cases, and 90% of those are parental abductions. Chances are, our kids will never find themselves in an abduction situation but the statistics around other crimes against children paint a darker picture.
Bottom line, say experts, every child should know:
- Their address and their parents’ full name and phone numbers
- That their body belongs to them and that no one can touch it without their permission
- That it’s okay to say no to adults
- To report any behaviour that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable even – or especially - if the adult tells them not to
- Safe adults they can confide in or go to if they’re in trouble (including locations in their neighborhood, like a corner store)
- To scream “this is not my dad” or “this is not my mom” if someone tries to grab them
- That short cuts through parks, trails or vacant lots are less safe than high-visibility areas because if you can’t be seen or heard, no one can help you.
- To trust their instincts. If something feels wrong, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible and tell an adult.