About two months ago, my son Adrian was at his father’s house skateboarding with a friend. It was about 7pm and the streetlights had just come on. The pair had noticed a man approaching them from down the street. They decided to cross to the other side and head toward the friend’s house. The man followed them. When they were in the backyard at the end of the driveway, the man approached and began to speak to my son as he reached into his pocket. Both boys took off running. My son ran through backyards, hopping fences and circling back around to his father’s backyard and in through the backdoor. The police came, took a report and the case is still open. The man was never found.
A stranger abducting your child is one of our worst fears as parents. We talk to them about safety as soon as they can speak. I’ve always been crazy about protecting them from kidnappers. I’ve had them fingerprinted regularly. I took dental impressions and hair samples when they were toddlers. I kept updated photos. But we still have to allow our children out into the world. So teaching them to protect themselves has to be a part of the game plan. How to do that is a little more complicated. What I taught my kids varied a bit over the years, but these are the most important lessons I started with beginning very early on.
Teach them to trust their gut.
This is the most important skill any human can ever possess. We are born with natural instincts to protect ourselves. We don’t want to train our children out of the instinct of self-protection. But it’s easy to do if we’re not careful. Don’t tell your kids to blindly obey adults. This is very dangerous. Tell your kids specifically which adults you allow them to trust. But then, teach them that their gut always overrides your expectation to comply with adult requests. Remember, most kids are hurt by friends, neighbors or family members. You want your child to feel empowered to stand up against an adult and say no. And specifically tell your child he will never be punished for not obeying an adult if he sincerely felt uncomfortable with the situation.
Teach them the safety “rules” to watch for.
For instance, safe adults will never ask a child for help. A safe adult will not ask a child to help them with directions to a store or park. A safe adult will not ask for help with a project or in finding a lost pet. A safe adult will not ask a child to go somewhere without the parent’s permission. Safe adults do not offer children candy, food or toys and they do not ask children to come inside their homes or cars without first talking to a parent. A safe adult will not ask a child to just believe that a parent has already given permission. A safe adult will insist that the child get permission directly. If the child encounters an adult who is breaking these safety rules, that is a sign of danger and she should run away immediately and find help.
Teach them to go limp.
Kids will be at a significant size disadvantage for most of their childhood. They will not be able to overpower an adult. If an adult has grabbed them or picked them up, this will help them get away. This is the technique that toddlers use when trying to get away from their parents. You remember how your toddler would turn into a jellyfish and just slip right out of your arms? Teach your child how to do that. It is very difficult to grab and carry a slippery, limp pile of mushiness.
Teach them the turtle trick.
Again, children are at a disadvantage against bigger, more powerful adults. Teach them that once they are away from an adult who has grabbed them, if they are not able to run away, to flip onto their backs. From that position, kick upward like a crazy flipped turtle. No matter where the adult moves, the child positions their body toward the adult, kicking wildly. Again, it is nearly impossible to pick up a child who is in this position. Your child should be screaming like a banshee while in this position, calling out, “This is not my mom/dad! Call 9-1-1!” or something to that effect.
It used to be that we taught our kids to find someone with a badge. But there are too many credentialed people in the world these days and it’s too difficult for a child to determine if the person is legitimate or safe. The most likely person to help a child and the least likely to harm him, is a mother. Your child can detect a mother by finding a woman with children. While this is not a guarantee that this woman isn’t a crazy person, she will be the safest of all the strangers your child has to choose from. He needs to find someone to help him, particularly if he is lost.
Teach them about themselves.
As early as possible, teach your child his last name. Teach him his parents’ first and last names and at least one phone number. Have him memorize his home address. You’d be surprised how many children have no idea who their parents are or where they live. This is vital information should your child become lost in public and find or be rescued by a good Samaritan. Role play. This is so important. You have to give your kids the opportunity to practice what you’ve taught them. You don’t want them to be afraid of the world. But you do want them to know what to do if something is wrong or somebody tries to hurt them. You don’t want them to freeze or make a bad decision. Wrestle with them, grab them, let them fight you off. Ask them questions and give them scenarios. Continue to talk about safety as an ongoing part of growing up.
We don’t want to think about our children getting hurt. But our children do have to go out in the world and unfortunately, the world has some bad people in it. We have to teach them how to spot these dangers and how to respond to them. I don’t know what might have happened to my son were he not prepared. I can only be grateful that he trusted his gut, he felt strong enough to act on his instincts, and he didn’t care if he hurt that man’s feelings. And so I still get to kiss my son goodnight. He might be a little shaken up, but he’s safe, home, and in one piece. For that, I’m the most grateful of all.
What have you taught your children about safety? Has your child ever been lost or approached by a stranger?
- Know the Rules…Abduction and Harm (missingkids.com)
- Lessons for Parents From the Horrific Cleveland Kidnappings (psychologytoday.com)
- Kidpower Safety Tips: Protecting Children from Stranger Abduction/Kidnapping (kidpower.org)