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Safety first with your child

June 5, 2013

By Michael C. Blackwell, President/CEO

When I was a child, I could go out to play in the morning, check in at lunch, and be gone for the afternoon. Mother’s only worry would be that I would bother the neighbors.

Today, Mom probably wouldn’t let me out of her sight, and if I slipped outside of shouting distance, she would call the police to find me. The truth is, just when you think maybe the world is becoming safe for children again, sharks surface and pull another young one under. Last month, we saw and read about the horror of a man kidnapping three young women in Cleveland, Ohio. The women were the victims of a decade-long incarceration.

Parents cringe to hear of a child’s disappearance, or of an innocent slumber party that becomes a horror scene of kidnapping. We wonder, “Am I doing all I can to keep my child safe?” The answer is probably no.

When was the last time you talked to your day-care-bound 3-year-old about good and bad touching? To your 10-year-old?

Does your 5-year-old know what to do if he gets lost at the mall? Could your 8-year-old animal lover resist the man combing the neighborhood for his puppy? Would your 14-year-old arcade devotee turn down the friendly, older teenager who boasts he can beat him?

I was raised in a mill town (Gastonia, N.C.) in which we knew our neighbors and they knew us. Parents knew the people next door would help their child, not endanger him.

“Good” neighborhoods don’t guarantee good neighbors today, even though we flee to the suburbs, from whence cometh our safety. In one recent national survey, children ages 7 to 17 listed personal safety as their number-one concern.

Giving children age-appropriate preventive information about personal safety “empowers children” and makes them feel more confident because they know what to do if an incident arises.

Making a blanket statement about people sometimes has opposite the intended effect, such as telling our children, “Don’t talk to strangers.”

That may be a disservice. It’s developmentally difficult to expect any child under 10 to be able to discern an okay stranger from one who’s not.

It’s better to help children identify bad situations: The day-care teacher who wants to play a touching game; the neighbor who happens by the bus stop before mom and offers shelter from the rain until she arrives.

One in three girls and one in seven boys will be molested and/or abducted by the age of 18, mostly by people they consider to be safe.

Even children five to 10 need tools to be protected against molestation. Parents should identify private parts of the body and good and bad touching. They especially need to know its bad touching even if it’s someone you know, like a babysitter.

Make these conversations routine and frequent so that the coping responses become second nature. Maybe, then, we won’t have to face another situation like the one last month in Cleveland.

Parents: Help your child by talking frankly, and early, about safety and dangers

  1. It’s good for children to scream if they feel in danger, but they should be specific: “This isn’t my father/mother!”

  2. The first time your child comes to you with a secret, even though he knows it will get him in trouble, adjust your response for bravery and courage. Otherwise, he may never do it again.

  3. Don’t wait until a tragedy is in the news to talk about molestation. Your anxiety and added urgency can be scary to children.

  4. Play the what-if-game, adjusting scenarios to your child’s age. Young children are most susceptible to lost-puppy stories, children 10 and older to lures of money. (“I can make you famous; let me take your picture.”) Response to encourage: “I have to check with the adult in charge.”

  5. Kids 10 and older don’t want to be embarrassed, so they would tend, for instance, to go along with someone who shows a badge and says, “I’m a security guard; I think you shoplifted,” even when they know they didn’t. Talk about how not all badges are real, and he can insist on going to a phone and calling 911 to check on the person. Tell him: “A real officer or guard won’t object.”

  6. Help your child distinguish between a swell secret (“I’m having a birthday party and you’re invited”) and a tell secret (“Let’s play a touching game and not tell your parents”).

  7. Be skeptical of someone who: Enjoys your child more than you; babysits without being paid; gives presents for no reason; is unusually generous at holidays; offers no-cost coaching or tutoring; has lots of children’s toys or videos at home.