Pattie Fitzgerald is founder of Safely Ever After, an educational company focused on keeping children safe. She urges families to teach children about “tricky people” instead of “stranger danger” since most strangers are not dangerous, and oftentimes someone who wants to harm a child may not appear dangerous. They are most often friendly, engaging and offer something appealing to the child. Teaching kids to be helpful and friendly is fine, but help them assess when it is safe and unsafe to do so.
Fitzgerald cautions about using fear to teach children about safety. The objective is not to have children terrified of all strangers, as they may need to talk to one at some point. Focus on which strangers are safe and how to assess for that.
• Teach children that safe adults will never ask children for assistance. They ask other adults. If an adult asks a child for help, a child should be taught to check with a safe adult before assisting.
• Trust your children when they tell you they do not want to be around someone. If being around that person makes them feel uncomfortable, don’t force them to do so.
• Have your children practice strategies for uncomfortable situations. If an adult they do not know asks them for assistance, such as finding a lost dog or carrying items to their car, role-play how to find a safe adult to consult with. If someone they know asks them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable, practice what can they say or do.
• Do not write your child’s name on their belongings. This could provide a dangerous stranger the opportunity to call your child by name and make the child believe he knows the stranger.
• Teach children not to walk anywhere alone; to have a buddy, always; not to take shortcuts through empty lots, wooded areas and areas not well lit. When walking, or when in unfamiliar areas, to keep eyes up, to stay off the phone and be alert and aware of surroundings.
• Establish a rule that no secrets are allowed, and that they will not get in trouble for sharing. There are no secrets allowed, especially if they involve “private parts” or touching. It is always okay and safe to tell a parent. If someone tells them not to tell Mom/Dad something, or to go somewhere without telling Mom/Dad, that it is the same thing as a secret and is not okay. Tell them adults should not tell children to keep secrets.
• Teach your child not go anywhere or do anything, even if it is with an adult they know, unless you give permission first.
• Have your children learn their name, address, phone number, parents’ names and phone numbers, and the phone numbers of safe adults they can contact in an emergency. Teach that it is more important to be safe than to be polite, and if someone makes them feel uncomfortable, they do not need to worry about being respectful.
• Create a safe word for your family in case of an emergency. If someone other than you has to pick them up, that person will use the safe word so that your child knows it is okay to go with that individual.
Visit www.safelyeverafter.com for more tips and information.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator. Simonetti is a former kindergarten teacher.