Keeping Kids Safe In Public – Teaching Important Lessons

Recently, police reported another incident in which a strange man offered a ride to a child.  It was the third or fourth such incident in recent months in Sonoma.

Our idyllic town is so kid friendly that it seems shocking that horrible things could also happen here.  As a mom with two young boys, the recent incidents raised questions about when to start teaching about “stranger danger.”

Are children ever too young to start learning this concept?  After all, I hold childhood innocence as something to be guarded, nurtured and protected.  But my two and a half year old, Bobby, is quite friendly.  He loves meeting friendly folks at the grocery store, in the store and around town.  The recent happenings got me thinking though that maybe this is the sort of thing that I as a mom should be avoiding.

Since I am in no way an expert on the subject, I consulted with a few experts.  They had some great ideas.  First, explain to your child in a simple way what a stranger is.  A stranger is anyone who mommy and daddy do not know.  And, while not all strangers are bad, strangers require ground rules.  Then, explain some ground rules.  Children are to ask mommy or daddy first before interacting with a stranger. This can mean just plain conversations, taking something like a gift or a treat from a stranger, or getting into a car with a stranger.

Silvia Floriano the community outreach officer from our local Sherriff’s Office  put it best when she said that Children normally will not yell and run at the sight of a stranger when they are under 5 since they have started to be social, especially when they are with an adult they trust. But it’s important that they learn who they can go with and who they need to stay away from when they are alone or at a distance.  Especially since some kids, like Bobby, are very friendly and will talk to anyone in the grocery store.

Officer Floriano reminded me of the importance of us as parents understanding that young children may not be able to understand what we are telling them.   It becomes our role as parents to be patient, use simple words and be willing to repeating things over and over again.

Second, introduce the concept of a stranger to your child through Play.  Play is a great way to teach kids.   Make a game using pictures of strangers from the web, newspapers or magazines and those of family and friends.  You could even just save a few photos on your phone.  Have your child pick a picture of the safe adult (family/friend) and someone they don’t know (stranger).  When they do it you can reiterate the ground rules (i.e. ask mommy before taking anything from someone).

Third, explain to your child the appropriate response when they are approached by a stranger.  This can be a game as well.  When your child is approached by a stranger they need to run back to mommy, daddy or whomever is taking care of them.  They can yell, scream, kick, etc.  You can make this a game as well.  Role play with your child.  Have them pretend someone in the family is the stranger.  Then, when the stranger approaches the child, have the child run to find mommy or daddy.  You can also use this to teach how to respond if they are grabbed by a stranger – i.e., kick, bite, yell, scream.

Fourth, there are two other topics related to strangers that are important to introduce – secrets and appropriate touching.  As Officer Floriano put it “A good secret will not make you sad or make you feel bad.  Such as a birthday gift.”  Whereas, “A bad secret will make you sad, scared and will make you feel bad.  And can hurt you like bad touches.” Of course, it becomes important to teach children that bad secrets are not to be kept from mommy or daddy, especially if they hurt or make them feel scared or bad.  Someone may tell your child that you will get upset, angry, mad when your child tells you a secret.  So, you can explain to your child that you will never get mad or angry at the child for telling you a secret.

Fifth, teach them about their Personal Space (the space around them that only safe people can be in) also talk to them about the Safety Circle and the Safe Area.  Make it a game. Show them that they need to yell, run and tell.  You can do this at the park.  A child’s personal space is that surrounding them when he/she stretches out their arms.  A safe area is the area that is open and makes it easy for a safe adult to see and hear the child at all times and for the adult to see and hear them.  This is opposed to trees, bushes, buildings, etc., places where it is difficult for children to be seen.  You can explain the concept of a safe area at a park.  Have your child point out safe areas to you.

Lastly, keep in mind that potential predators know what they are looking for.  Officer Floriano explains that “a bad person, who will hurt children will look for the child that seems to be alone, isolated, quiet and is not making contact of any kind with the adults around. So event when your child is playing and you are just sitting on the bench watching… be watchful and always make sure your child sees you and responds even if it’s just a wave. Also being aware of who is hanging out and looks out of place is important.”  In addition, she cautions parents “When you are going to spend time at any public place with your child make sure that you pay attention to them. A simple distraction can have a devastating result.”

published also in the Sonoma Index Tribune, 5/22/2012

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