Nothing is more important than keeping your children safe. Help protect them from abduction, exploitation, and cyber-bullying by having them follow these ground rules from SAFE KIDS, SMART PARENTS: WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW TO KEEP THEIR CHILDREN SAFE.
You know that teaching your child their full name, their home address, and phone number (whether cell phone or landline) is a must for younger children. You know that young kids might not even know their parents’ names—it’s just Mom or Dad to them! Many families teach kids to buckle their seat belts before the car can go, and of course you use the appropriate baby and booster seats for the younger ones. Little things like never playing around cars, never approaching unknown dogs without a grown-up present, looking both ways before crossing the street, holding a parent’s hand in a crowded place: These are all safety basics that you practice every day.
You most likely have your own basic safety rules depending on where you live, how you grew up, and how you learned about safety. You might have street smarts from growing up on city streets, or you might have been raised on the prairie and know a lot about safety around farm machinery. Maybe you grew up in a suburb where “nothing ever happened.” The big point is you want your children to follow a set of rules that become habit and common practice. We think of them as “The Basics”:
• Make a safety list of people who you and your child trust. Write their contact information (daytime and nighttime phone numbers) next to each name. In this day of click and drag photographs, try to put a photograph of the person next to their name and number, too. These are people you can call in an emergency, people you know will be there for you and your child if you need them to. Keep a copy of this list somewhere your child can get to, and make sure he knows where it is.
• Ask your child to agree (verbally and, if they’re older, in writing, too) not to go anywhere, help anyone, take anything given to them, or get into a car without first telling you or the person who is taking care of them. Tell your child (repeatedly) they must do this even when they think you might get mad if they do. This is a basic rule that continues throughout childhood and even into young adulthood. If you would like a prepared written agreement, please see the Safe Kid Kit.
• Ask your child to agree not to go places alone. She should take a friend (better yet, friends) along with her. You will make exceptions as a child gets older, but generally, having someone along is a good policy.
• Explain to children that it is okay to say no if someone does something to them they don’t like, or makes them uncomfortable. This is a tricky one, because younger kids have no difficulty saying no to all sorts of things they don’t like—vegetables, for example. Getting the difference across will take work.
A young child I know was attending an afternoon swim class. There was a substitute teacher that day. He told the kids to start swimming from end to end of the pool. When the child said no, the teacher insisted and berated him for disobeying:
“You will never learn to swim well unless you get going!” he said.
“No,” the young child said, “I can’t!”
The teacher responded, “You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude!”
“No,” the child said again. “I can’t swim. That’s why I’m in swim class!”
The teacher finally understood: The boy wasn’t being contrary—he really couldn’t swim across the pool, he was in the wrong class. In brief: Saying no when they are uncomfortable, scared, and being asked to do something they don’t like, particularly by anyone not on that safety list, is not the same as being mean or rude. It is teaching your child to stand up for himself! Encouraging self-worth and self-esteem are the keys to helping children advocate for themselves. It’s worth mentioning here that children who are able to set boundaries often have learned the skill from parents who are good at setting boundaries for them. Think about that the next time you give your son a time-out for hitting his sister!
• Encourage your child to tell someone on her safety list if anything happens that makes her feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or scared. Assure her that the goal is to help her understand what happened so that together you can work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The big point is to encourage your children to communicate what’s going on.
• Remind your children that they shouldn’t always believe what people tell them. Children need to learn to think for themselves. Again, encouraging self-worth goes a long way toward learning this lesson. Do you remember the old saying “If everyone else jumps off a cliff, should you?”? If someone tries to convince your child that they are supposed to do something and the child isn’t sure, don’t you want them to ask you first? As they get older, children will get more confident about analyzing a situation and making good decisions, but that confidence comes from encouraging young children to learn how to think on their own and practice, practice, practice.
• Promise your children that they can call you anytime, day or night, if they are unsure, or don’t feel safe with what’s going on around them. You must also promise not to be angry if they need to be picked up because they are uncomfortable. Make this promise knowing full well that there will be false alarms and that when they occur you won’t get mad. Those moments represent an opportunity for you to help a child better her judgment, not learn to question it. You can repeat your offer through the younger years of first friendships, the middle school years of sleepovers, and the teen years of parties and experimentation. As parents, you need to reassure your child that you will always be there no matter what.
Have fun trick-or-treating with the kiddios! Need some extra tricks? Beware of these ghost stories…