In 1999, 7-year-old Ashley Ann Carlson walked a few blocks from home. She never returned. I will never forget how horrified our little county was as we all searched for the beautiful little girl. A young man, 16-year-old Patrick
Harned, participated in the search. He was a neighbor of Ashley's. Ashley's body was later discovered in his house. Most of us have experienced a moment when a child has slipped out of sight, for even a second, and our hearts have skipped a beat. How do we keep them safe?
The US Federal Bureau of Investigations reported that by September 2011 it had assisted in 77 child abduction cases, with 70 percent of the perpetrators being known to the family. In 2002 the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported more than 58,200 cases of kidnapping involving a family member or acquaintance with almost half of the victims' being sexually assaulted.
We cannot teach our children about the stranger without, without first making sure they feel safe enough to talk about the dangers within our circle of acquaintances. Stranger danger is an essential subject. The challenge is to also teach children to tell someone even when it is a family member, or acquaintance, taking them away or making them feel uncomfortable.
It is important to give our children the message that there is nothing they could do or say, that would make us so mad, that we would stop loving them. Most of us teach our children to say no to strangers, and to tell a grown up when bad things happen. These important lessons come with a potentially hidden message. The hidden message to children may be, if you are afraid to say no or fight back, you did it wrong and it might be your fault. Even though we may not mean it that way at all, children sometimes hear it that way. If they feel safe to make mistakes, they will feel safe to tell us no matter what happens to them.
So children feel safe to talk to you, start by making it safe to tell you small things, like they broke the neighbor's window or your favorite dish. It is important that children know without a doubt that it is alright to make mistakes, and that if they do things like pet a stranger's dog even after being told not to, we will still love them.
The ability to communicate and talk about what is happening at school, at Boy Scouts or soccer practice goes hand in hand with the subject of stranger danger. Because, it is the person we think we know that may be the dangerous stranger in our midst.
Ideas to teach children to stay safe
Teach names and phone numbers
All children should memorize their parents' names (first and last), phone numbers and address.
Practice using pay phones
Practice asking a clerk or borrowing a cell phone from a safe person and calling home or for help. Teach your child how to call collect or dial long distance.
Practice call 911
. Take the batteries out of an old cell phone or unplug a land line and practice dialing 911. Help your child practice describing their surroundings.
Practice looking for safe people in the malls or stores near you
. Instruct children to go to store cashiers or grandmothers with children to ask for help if they are lost in a mall or store.
Pick a family code word like "peanut butter."
Teach children not to go with anyone, even family or friends, without the code word. For example, if you send your neighbor to pick up your child in an emergency, she would have to give the code or password. She would say, "Hi Ashley, your mom sent me to bring you to the hospital and told me to tell you 'peanut butter.'"
Use that same code word as a "pick me up I am uncomfortable," code word
Teach your children that if they are at a sleep over or party, they can call and say the code word (without tipping off their cool friends), and you will know they want to be picked up, or are feeling uncomfortable. For example, "Hi Mom, did you get my favorite peanut butter?" This call tips you off and you know what your child really means is, I want to come home. Pick me up as soon as possible.
Give daycare providers photos of unapproved pick-up people
If there is a relative or person that is unsafe, provide the school or day care with his photo.
Allow your children to say no to other adults,
so that they know it is acceptable to say no to an abuser. If we teach them to obey all adults, they may obey the wrong adult. For example, allow them to turn down desserts or invitations to play at friends' homes.
Practice screaming and making noise
Children are more likely to survive a sexual assault if they fight back. Practice in a park or public setting yelling, "You're not my Mommy!" But, let local officials know prior to your practice session. Making noise isn't always easy or comfortable for some children.
We spend so much time teaching our children to be respectful and polite. Sometimes when we teach stranger danger skills it feels like we are undoing all our hard work. We are not. We are empowering our children to keep themselves safe, and letting them know it is acceptable to express their needs and try to get those needs met. These skills will keep them safe, not only as children, but when they enter adult relationships. These are the same skills that will let them know abuse of any kind is unacceptable.
So, teach your children to say no and go tell. Then teach them if it doesn't work, and something goes wrong, you will always love them.