Keeping our children safe is a big, important part of parenting and nobody wants their child to become a statistic. We want to teach our children about safety, but it is a complex issue and we don’t want to scare them. We want them to be friendly with the lady at the checkout, but we don’t want them talking to just anybody. We teach them about “stranger danger” and yet we hear statistics that most child abuse comes from someone the child knows. We want to protect our children, but we also know there will come a time when they will want to play in the neighborhood with other children, go to friend’s houses, etc. where we are not in direct supervision. So, the question becomes how do we teach our children about boundaries and who is a safe adult in a way that empowers and equips them rather than scares them or keeps them clueless?
Author and teacher Pattie Fitzgerald has come up with a program to teach young children about being safe. She starts with a list of rules that teach children about boundaries. She talks about “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” feelings to help kids categorize experiences. Her first and maybe most important idea is to teach kids that they are the boss of their bodies.
This means that your child has the right to say “no” when someone touches them in a way they don’t like. Even when Grandma wants a hug or Auntie wants a kiss, you should empower your child to say “no thank you” rather than capitulate to the pressure. It is better to offend an adult than to accidently teach your child that grown ups have the right to force affection.
Another way to reinforce that your child is the boss of his or her body is to remind them that no one should touch them in anyplace that is covered by underwear or a bathing suit. The exception to that is of course a parent helping them to be clean or a doctor exam with a parent in the room. Helping them practice “No! Don’t touch me!” may feel uncomfortable to you, but can empower your children with permission to say no even to an adult.
There are many other ways to help children own the idea that they are the boss of their bodies, and I would recommend that you check out the Safely Ever After website and Pattie’s tips for training your children about body safety. http://safelyeverafter.com/tips.html
Another growing area of educating children about safety involves the putting away of the term “stranger danger” and replacing it with “tricky people.” When we remember that most child abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, stranger danger becomes completely ineffective and in fact counterproductive. It is a strategy of child predators to play into the idea that they are a known and trusted entity.
Teaching your kids about tricky people can encompass anyone from a complete stranger to your next-door neighbor, babysitter, coach, family member, virtually anyone. What exactly is a tricky person? It is an adult, older child or even peer that tries to get your child to break his or her personal safety rules. So, creating a list of safety rules is the first step to helping your child identify tricky people. These rules should include: never go anywhere with an adult without asking your parents; never accept anything, including candy and money, without asking your parents; you are the boss of your body and may say “no” to touches; you as the child are the one to ask permission, do not take someone’s word for it that permission has been granted. As your family starts to create a list of safety rules, do a little research and tailor a list that fits your specific family. Again, the website http://safelyeverafter.com/tenrules.html is a great place to start.
As adults we are responsible for teaching our children to be safe. We cannot assume that we will always be there to protect them, therefore we must equip them with strategies to identify unsafe or tricky people. We must teach them in regular, ongoing conversations how to respond in an appropriate way when they are in an uncomfortable or confusing situation with a tricky person. And most importantly, they must understand that you will always believe them and support them if they tell you that someone has broken (or tried to break) one of their personal safety rules. Although we as parents should be ever diligent, empowering children to be part of that process with us is a powerful tool that may ultimately avert tragedy.
If you would like to watch a video of Pattie teaching young children about safety, here’s a good place to start.