Monday, February 11, 2008

Four Simple Ways to Help Keep Your Child Safe

Last year I was invited to write an article for a parenting website and had a blast doing it. I've written several articles before for magazines and websites, but all have been focused on entertainment or technology- fun and interesting things for sure, but not nearly as meaningful and important to me as the safety and welfare of children. I had forgot about this piece until someone recently posted a comment and it hit my Google Alert again. Thought I would re-publish it here on my blog. Hope you enjoy.

Four Simple Ways to Help Keep Your Child Safe

Like many parents of small children, I taught the time-worn mantra of “don’t talk to strangers” to our kids, resulting in the always confusing “who is a stranger?” conversation that was sure to follow. Adults know perfectly well who a stranger is- it’s someone we don’t know. But to a child, a stranger is all too often someone completely different, with imagined characteristics that surprise many parents. Children asked what a stranger looks like often describe ‘scary people’ that wear dark glasses and clothing, hide around corners and follow them. They say strangers are ‘mean people’ that look like they hurt others. Unfortunately, most people that hurt children look like most anyone. They often appear to be kind and caring men that want to help kids.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of connecting with Julie Clark (founder of The Baby Einstein Company) and John Walsh (host of America’s Most Wanted) while working for a large media company. I had decided to branch out and acquire more kids video products, and, through research, discovered their new venture- The Safe Side. After a few months of discussions, I signed them for distribution, and then shortly after that, they hired me to help launch the company. I had fallen in love with their mission to help kids- I jumped at the opportunity.

To me, the teaching presented by Julie and John through their videos is simple, yet revolutionary. It talks to kids, not down at them, and gives them and their parents a whole new vocabulary that allows them to speak the same language. It breaks the world into 3 groups of people- that’s it- no middle ground. There are ‘Safe Side Adults’ (a small group of 2-5 people or so that mom and dad or the primary safe and loving caregiver define), ‘Don’t Knows’ (anyone the child does not know) and ‘Kinda Knows’ (anyone the child ‘kind of knows’ such as the next door neighbor, teacher, coach, your friends, or even an uncle or cousin).

Children really get this- it sinks in fast, especially when presented in the Safe Side videos by the lead character, Safe Side Superchick. I go into greater detail about The Safe Side and the important Hot Tips that help keep children safer in a post I wrote a few months ago on DigitalRichDaily.

It’s relatively easy to keep children safe when they’re younger. For the most part, they’re always in sight and under your watchful eye. It’s when they hit school-age that things get a bit more complex. Suddenly, they are off to birthday parties, spending the night at a friend’s house, or playing at a next-door neighbor’s. This is the time to pull out the parenting manual you were given by the hospital, where you gave birth to your precious child. Mine is titled “Children: Installation and Operating Instructions” and was printed sometime around 1956 or so. Oh- you didn’t get one? Don’t bother. Much of the lessons on safety from our parents is no longer effective. How could our parents know the new or changed threats that are facing us today? One example- who would have thought just 10 years ago that most every American family would invite an always-on Internet connection to be in their home, essentially a 24/7 stranger living down the hall?

If you're investing time and effort to provide a healthy, safe, and encouraging environment for your children- congratulations! Way to go! I figured you are- why else would you be reading a post on a site like I’m sure you know, however, that there are families your child will come in contact with that don’t share the same values, or provide the same environment as you do. In fact, sometimes I think these parents and their children are drawn to those that do, sensing a caring and safe world that they aspire to be a part of.

The challenge is keeping your children safe, while also allowing them to learn and grow, by experiencing different environments and people that will add context and understanding to your teaching and instruction. But that must never come at the expense of their safety.

Here are 4 specific things you can do to help keep your kids safe as they start to experience more freedom in their lives, exploring new friendships and environments:

1. Talk to your kids about ‘Don’t Knows.’ Children should understand that ‘Don’t Knows’ can be very important people in their lives. ‘Don’t Knows’ can be fun and exciting people, full of information, fun stories and good times, as long as you (the Safe Side Adult) are around.
‘Don’t Knows’ can even save your child’s life - and it is important your children understand that it’s ok to talk to them in emergencies, when you’re not around. Take for example young Brennan Hawkins, the 11 year-old boy lost in the mountains of Utah during the summer of 2005. When rescuers were near enough to hear and rescue him, shouting through bullhorns, he didn’t respond, because he was taught not to talk to strangers. Using the trusted ‘secret password’ system also helps in these situations.

Another ‘Don’t Know’ that can be a help to a child, when he or she is lost or separated from you, is any mom with kids. Teach your children that, in these situations, they should look for these special ‘Don’t Knows.’ Having your child look for a police officer or a store employee comes in a distant last place to the help the ever-present mom can provide. Security guards can often be mistaken by a child for a police officer (I am sure most of the security guard folks are fine upstanding citizens, but there are many creeps in the profession as well). Anyone can look like they are an employee to a child- but there is no doubt they will easily spot a mom with kids- and who else will latch on to your child with care and concern until they are safely with mom or dad again?

Another reason why moms with kids are preferable over anyone else is this- according to a 2003 US Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 99% of all sex offender arrests are male. The vast majority of the females that are arrested don’t have children. Case closed.

2. Expand on the concept of ‘Kinda Knows.’ Unfortunately, most children that are hurt emotionally or physically are hurt by someone they kind of know, or, in too many cases, know well. It is important that children know not to go anywhere or do anything with ‘Kinda Knows’, just like ‘Don’t Knows’, without their Safe Side Adult’s permission. ‘Kinda Knows’ include absolutely everyone that isn’t in the other two groups. This includes sports coaches, teachers, pastors, their friend’s parents, or your friends.
I coach softball and I am shocked at parents’ willingness to leave their child in my care, dropping them off for practice and leaving them with me for hours. They think they can accurately judge my character and who I am after a few amiable conversations, and seeing me pour my heart into helping these young girls develop new skills and self-confidence. In my case, they happen to be right. I would never even imagine hurting a child, but there are those few sick individuals out there that would, and they count on- depend on- carelessness like this to secure what they need.

3. Let Your ‘Private Investigator’ skills shine. Our first child was invited to a sleepover at a friend’s house across the street when she was 6 years old. We knew the family relatively well- my wife had been to their house a couple of times for neighborhood playgroup gatherings and trusted them. All went well until the next day when our adorable little girl gave us a minute-by-minute recounting of her first sleepover.

She talked about playing, eating pizza, watching a movie, and lots more. Much more. I have to admit I started to zone out after a few minutes, trying to get in some E-mail time while listening. Then I heard a word that didn’t seem to fit in with the whole “what I did on my sleepover” report. I looked up and asked her to repeat the last thing she said. The word was gun. Turns out her friend invited our daughter to join in on a secret mission to sneak upstairs, to look at her daddy’s shiny new gun. That birthed a new tradition in our household- the pre-sleepover or play-date questionnaire:
Do you have any firearms in your house? If yes, are they locked up and completely inaccessible to anyone in your home except you?

Is there any alcohol in your home? If yes, is it in a locked case and inaccessible to all minors? Will there be anyone drinking alcohol or smoking in your home when my child is there? (I have a friend that had to go pick up his daughter from a friend’s house when she called home to report that her friend’s mom was drunk and yelling loudly and she was scared).

Are there any older siblings in the home? If so, how old are they? (I hate to say this, but if you have a daughter, it might not be a good idea to let them spend the night at a friend’s house that includes older teenage boys unless you know and trust the family very well).

What activities will my child be involved in while there? (If music and movies are on the agenda, ask which artists or films will be played. If they are on your “not in our house” list, then speak up and let them know they will have to choose different entertainment. Suggest sending over your child’s favorite movies if they would like).

Will any other children be at the house, or spending the night? (This is important- I had another friend, whose daughter spent the night at a friend’s, only to find out the next day an older sibling had a rather rowdy co-ed party at the house the same night. Not a good scene).

Are there any computers with internet access in the bedroom? If no, is the computer’s location in a common area where you are able to keep an eye on activities?

These may seem invasive, and are a bit uncomfortable to ask the first or second time you do it, but trust me- it gets easier. Another thought- why not set a great example for others by providing them a brief overview of your plans, and even answers to the questions if their child will be spending the night at your house? A great way to do this is to send a brief E-mail thanking them for trusting their child to your care, explain the activities for the evening, confirm the drop-off and pick-up time, and answer the 6 questions you would ask them if your child was spending the night at their home.

If your child has spent the night at their house before, and they’ve endured your investigation, it shows you are consistent and fair. If they haven’t, you will make it easier when it’s time for you to ask them those questions. Plus you may just start a trend.

4. Explain the concept of personal space to your child. The physical space around your child is an important tool in keeping them safer. About the only way for someone to hurt your child is to get close to them. Teaching your children that there is an imaginary circle around them that ‘Don’t Knows’ and ‘Kinda Knows’ shouldn’t cross into if you’re not around is very important. Many cases where children have been injured or abducted have started with an adult approaching a child for what appears to be an innocent reason. Whether the adult says they need directions, or help finding a lost child or pet, what all of these have in common is an attempt by an adult to cross into a child’s ‘Safe Side Circle’ when you’re not there. Teach your children that adults don’t need help from children- period. If someone they don’t know crosses into that circle, your child should leave immediately and find you.


Di Eats the Elephant said...

This is a fabulous article. Having tried to explain about how people we trust the most are the ones we are most likely to be hurt by, without trying to scare my children away from trusting anyone, I appreciate how well you have so clearly and carefully laid out a plan that does that. I have boys and while it is less likely they will be the intended victims, it may be twice as devastating (affecting their identity as well)if they are. Thanks for reprinting it; I will share it with my family and friends.