As a working mom in Omaha, or any parent for that matter, it is given us the task of discussing issues such as death and safety with our children. In the wake of the recent school shooting, these two discussions have become intertwined. For the comfort of our children, it may be wise to prepare them for dealing with death. For the safety of our children, it may be wise to prepare them for a potentially unsafe situation. Continuing our series, today’s discussion focuses on talking to children about personal safety.
As discussed in the previous article, children may need to be prepared for the finality of death and the notion that people who are hurt or injured do not necessarily return home, despite what TV tends to suggest. As parents, we are aware of the potential for hurt and harm in today’s world. Often, just as we strive to protect our children from the potential for such, we act to spare them the knowledge as well. While this is instinctive, and quite necessary for maintaining children’s innocence, it creates the problem of leaving children unprepared in unsafe situations. Ultimately, even the best parents cannot always be there. Thus, at some point, the discussion becomes necessary. In this area as well, parents do well to keep a child’s emotional capacity in mind and choose words carefully.
An important goal should be that one does not create fear in a child. Herein is the fine line parents must walk during such discussions. Young children naturally hold a utopian view of the world, being joyfully clueless to the existence of danger outside of the stove and light socket. In a perfect world, even these would not require discussion. However, in the real world, danger is all around us every day. We combat what we can – using car seats, holding hands across intersections, keeping a close eye on our children at all times. But, at some point, a child will go to day care, or school, or a friend’s house. And we won’t.
We need to teach our children safe behaviors to use in our absence, from looking both ways to walking only in groups. However, it must go beyond that. Personal safety may require teaching children how to scream, run, or defend themselves. It may require teaching them fire safety skills. It may require teaching them what to do if we suddenly collapse at home. The risks are indeed endless. Children need to know their full name, address, and phone number as well as how to dial 911 as early as possible. They need to know the escape routes from their home. These go without saying, and are relatively easy to discuss. Where personal safety is concerned, however, the matter is much different.
How does one explain the concept of stranger danger to a child who has no idea strangers may be dangerous? Unfortunately, we must first enlighten them to that very fact. Keeping in mind a child’s emotional level, keep the conversation as generic as possible. Children do not need to know what such people are capable of. Simply explain that there are some people in the world who are not nice. Perhaps a good example would be to explain how, just as their older sibling may occasionally pick on them, some grown-ups have not outgrown such behavior. There are just some people who are not nice and never will be. Be very clear that you will always do your best to protect them, but sometimes, you might need them to help with that, too. Once you have explained the concept of mean people, you need to help your child identify such people.
I use the phrase ‘mean people’ rather than ‘bad people’ because studies show that children’s perception of a bad person is typically a burly, unattractive person. However, as we know, mean people often look very nice. This is how they gain your trust. On this point, simply explain it as it is. Anyone can be mean: a doctor, a teacher, a neighbor. And the person does not necessarily have to be a stranger either. The person may be a woman, a man, or even another child. A good idea is to frame it as ANYONE who does not live in the house with them. After the doctor appointment is over, the doctor becomes a stranger. After school, the teacher becomes a stranger. If the parent is not present, the child is not to go anywhere with such individuals.
Once parents have sufficiently explained these concepts, the next step is to begin teaching children actual defense skills. Obviously, the best option is to run. A child should understand that if an adult even appears to be coming toward them, they should run the other way. For example, a child should not wait until an adult is standing next to them. They should move away if someone is even crossing the street toward them.
In the event a person is able to approach them, and running is not an option, the next step is to scream. Here again, we look to studies of children. Simply yelling “aaaaah” is not enough. Many adults are accustomed to tantrumming and may not be alerted by simple screaming. The child must scream specific words, such as “help me”, “this is not my parent”, “he/she is trying to hurt me”, etc.
The final option, if running and screaming fail of course, is fighting back. Children are small, but there are some techniques they can try when necessary; for example, biting. It is no secret that small children may be quite skilled in this area! Despite their size, children may be able to at least distract a person long enough to run off. They may bite or kick. Another technique that may be helpful is to teach children how to drop or twist out of a hold. For example, when one is in a ‘headlock’ hold, raising one’s arms and sliding to the ground is an option. When someone has a person by the arm, twisting against the thumb may be effective. The thumb is weak. Any pressure will loosen the other person’s grip. This is a technique taught in martial arts that even a child may be able to use. This may also provide an opportunity to take the scary edge off the whole subject. Have a few practice sessions and help your child learn how to get out of these holds at home with you. After all, this is a subject that will need to be re-visited several times and then periodically thereafter so that it becomes naturally ingrained.
A light-hearted and age-appropriate way to explain these concepts is to tell your child they have permission to completely misbehave in such situations. In other words, break all the rules. Normally, we teach children to be polite, quiet, and well-behaved. But, in such situations, it is perfectly acceptable to be rude, loud, and mean. A good resource for parents is the Boy Scout handbook, which contains some very appropriate safety concepts.
In the coming weeks, the series will continue, with discussion of school safety and gun safety, among other issues.