Teaching Kids Safety Smarts

by | Feb 28, 2014 | Courage and Assertiveness

How would your child respond if a stranger knocked at your door? Are you sure? You’ll be surprised– advice I shared on Dateline.

Imagine an adult coming to your door when you’re not at home. The adult clearly looks official. He has a badge or is wearing a uniform such as a fireman or law enforcement officer. He sounds authoritative. He knocks at your door and portrays one of these situations.

“Do you have milk in your refrigerator? I’m a milk inspector and need to take your milk. It’s hurting kids. Here’s my badge. Open the door!”

“Your Mom has had an accident. She asked me to pick you up and take you to the hospital. Open the door!”

“I’m the police. See my badge? There’s been a robbery in the neighborhood. You need to come with me quickly! Open the door!”

How do you think  your child would respond in one of these situations?Would your child open the door? “No,” you say? Well, don’t be too sure!

Dateline NBC did a test using those type of scenarios on a number of kids of varying ages. All of those kids’ parents said they had taught them safety skills. Are you ready?

Two out of three kids opened the door to the stranger and obeyed the stranger’s demands.

During the September Dateline special “Perils in Parenting” in which I appeared as the “parenting expert” the test was again repeated. The results were disturbing: One in three kids opened the door to the stranger.

While there are no guarantees for our children’s safety and well being, research shows we can teach a few crucial safety basics that may help them be less likely to be harmed and could even save their lives. Though you may fear that talking about frightening issue such as kidnapping will scare the pants off your kids, not to do so is a mistake. The secret is to bring up the topic in relaxed way just as you discuss fire and pool safety. Just consider your child’s age, developmental level and the safety skills he needs at that point in his life.

The best way to teach any skill is by SHOWING it to your child…not TELLING.

So choose one skill at a time, show your child what it looks like (think of yourself as an actor), and then practice the skill until your child can comfortably and confidently use that skill alone.  Also, if you want your kid to stand up for herself (and I hope you do!), don’t get in the habit of speaking for her. Doing so can rob your child from developing the skills she needs to look and sound determined which will be critical in an emergency. Look for those opportunities to help your child practice using strong body language and a firm voice so she can learn to defend herself.

7 Critical Safety Skills Every Kid Should Know

1.Establish a family secret code 

Choose a memorable code like “Geronimo,” to give only to family members or trusted individuals responsible for your kids in your absence. Then stress: “Never leave with anyone who can’t say our family’s secret code.” Create a texted code (like “111” or “123”) to be used by the child to contact you if in danger. It recently saved a California teen from abduction.

2. Learn to recognize suspicious behavior

Instead of scaring (and possibly even confusing) your kids with the “Stranger = Danger” approach, experts suggest that a better way is to teach kids to recognize suspicious situations. Here are a few adult behaviors kids should learn to be aware of:

Asking for help: “I need help finding my child. Please help me!”  “Can you help me look for my puppy?”

Offering treats: “Would you like some candy?” “I have a skateboard in my car. Would you like it?”

Feigning an emergency: “Hurry! You mom was in an accident. I’ll take you to the hospital.”

Flaunting authority: “I think you’re the kid who hurt my son. Come with me and we’ll go find your parents.”

Pretending to be an official: “I’m with the F.B.I. and this is my badge. You must come.” Teach your child to call you ASAP or to dial 9-1-1- to verify the situation.

Faking friendship with a parent. “I’m an old friend of your dad’s. He asked me to come over. Can you take me to your house?”

Tip: Emphasize to your child that she can always ask a stranger for help, but an adult stranger does not ask kids for help.

3. Do NOT open the door

Stress repeatedly to never open the door to someone who is not an immediate family member. Explain that anyone who is a friend will understand your rule and not mind waiting. Emphasize: “Don’t say anything-find a parent!” If you’re not home, tell your child to phone you from a backroom or 9-1-1 if in danger.

4. Teach 9-1-1

Make sure your child knows her first and last name, your first and last name, phone number, and address. Program your phone so your child can reach you and dial 9-1-1 instantly. Put a sticker on the “0.” Then teach how to dial “operator” to reverse charges, so she can call you from any phone anywhere.

5. Teach: “Drop, Holler, and Run”

Teach your child that if he ever needs to get away quickly, he should drop whatever he is carrying, holler, and run. Teach your child that if grabbed, he should hold on to anything (such as his bicycle handles or car door) holler, and kick an abductor in the groin or eyes. Dropping to the ground and kicking-tantrum style-makes it more difficult to be picked up. Stress: “I’ll never be upset if you hurts someone if you’re trying to protect yourself.”

6. Retrain kids to yell, “STRANGER!”

If possible, he should run to an adult (ideally a woman with children) screaming, “Help! This is a STRANGER!”

A mom emailed me just this morning. Her five year old was abducted briefly in a busy market and was taught to yell “You’re not my dad!” The problem was 99% of the people could not hear him and the one person who did hear him thought that the man was the child’s Grandpa.

So teach your child not to yell: “You’re not my dad!” Or “You’re not my mother!” In this day and age of step parents and guardianships, most abductions are done by someone the child knows. The detective recommended retraining children to yell, “STRANGER!” And the good news is that the five year old boy is safe and sound. I thank the mom for that safety tip and altered this post ASAP. You need to practice, practice, practice until the child can confidently and comfortably use the skill.

7. Use your gut instinct

A “fear factor” can be a powerful in keeping kids safe, but often isn’t used because we fail to help our kids learn theirs. Teach your child that if she ever feels he could be in danger, to use that fear instinct and leave immediately. You’ll support her.

I was on the Dr. Phil set as an expert recently and witnessed a brilliant safety instructor teach two young girls “Safety Smarts.” She had trained one nine year old that when an abductor grabs from behind (and your gut instinct warns that you could be abducted) to immediately kick him in the groin and then drop to the ground and start having a tantrum like a toddler. The instructor explained that it is much harder to abduct a child who is kicking and screaming on the ground (this is only when the child knows he can’t run).

The whole scene took place in less than 60 seconds and succeeded. The instructor had another eight year old watching and immediately asked her to repeat the scenario. The girl assertively jumped into the scene, kicked the instructor so hard she was forced to let go, then got on the ground and copied verbatim what the other child had just done.

Every adult on the set cheered, but every adult also quickly learned a crucial lesson:

The best way to teach a child a skill is to show not tell. So role play these skills over and over. Repeat the skills over and over until your child gains the confidence she will need to respond in an emergency.

Kids need our permission to defend themselves, and they then need to know how to do so.

Above all, please remind your son or daughter that you are there whatever the situation may be, and you love him or her no matter what.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Checkfor ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

You can also find dozens more research-based and practical tips in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. For more tips about teaching safety smarts refer to specific chapters starting on the listed page: Dependent (pg 240);  Stressed (pg 303); Separation Anxiety (pg 301); Worried About the World (pg 310); and Safety (pg 578),