Rethinking Stranger Danger

The best intelligence, before an emergency, to keep our kids safe

Every time a child goes missing anywhere in America, parents shudder — and hold their little ones a little closer. What basic tips can we follow to keep our children safe from harm?

Michelle L. Boykins, senior director of communications at the National Crime Prevention Council, shared up-to the-minute thinking with LifeZette and the newest protocols for keeping kids safe from harm.

“No one wants to think about a child being abducted or harmed,” said Boykin. “We believe in prevention before something bad happens. Preventive measures go a long way to keep tragedies from ever happening to your family.”

Here are important tips and general information to keep our families connected, strong and safe when it comes to outside dangers.

LifeZette: Is it still correct to teach kids about “stranger danger”?

Michelle Boykins: We feel it’s not good to be that literal anymore when teaching kids about safety. The phrase “stranger danger” is simple to remember, but it actually puts kids at a disadvantage.

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A stranger draws to mind a big, evil, mean stranger, but not all dangerous individuals present that way. And while you are talking about one thing, your child is thinking another. To you, a neighbor may be a stranger. To your child, that neighbor may be “someone we know,” and therefore not a stranger. So we discourage that phrase, and look for better ways to teach kids about who is safe and who isn’t.

We advocate “teaching scenarios” instead. Who are the people they can go to safely? There are “safe strangers” in society, such as law enforcement. A scenario might be to ask the question: If you are lost in the mall, who is the safe stranger? Mall security would be a safe stranger.

Also, develop a safe word — a word only you and your child, and other trusted adults including the school emergency contact, know. Then, the child has security in knowing that “this person knows the safe word, so I can go with him.”

LZ: What about the notion of blind trust of adults or authority figures, even family?

Boykins: There is a way to circumvent any situations where harm might happen, no matter who you are talking about — family, coaches, cousins, whomever. Create this rule: “I don’t ever want you to go with anyone I haven’t said you can go with.” Then, you will be aware of everywhere your child goes, and every person your child is ever with. Second, teach kids to report to you anyone who touches them or makes them feel uncomfortable; this is so important. It’s imperative they know to come to you with any discomforting feelings.

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LZ: Are ID kits for kids a good idea? Some have DNA sampling, of course, that allow parents to record a child’s DNA.

Boykins: Yes, these are a great idea, and we strongly suggest completing a child ID kit. It may seem scary to even think about needing to use one, but if your child does go missing, you have everything authorities need to find your child. In moments of panic it is easy to forget to tell police that your child has a birthmark, for example. If you put together an ID kit when you are calm, you have done something preventative to keep your child safe. The kit you put together will include a current photo, identifying marks, and a fingerprint, too. Then just put it away. Chances are, you will never need it.

LZ: What do we teach kids to do if they are being abducted?

Boykins: It’s sad but true: Abductions do happen. Again, scenarios are a great way to teach about abduction. Ask your child, “If a stranger came up to you and said he had lost his puppy, and asked you to help him find it, would you?”

You have just exposed your child to a scenario in that conversation. Try to make the conversation as organic as possible; use the news to start a conversation. An Amber Alert is a good time to talk about abductions and prepare your child’s responses to anyone who might try to abduct him or her.

In the horrific event that children are abducted, it is critical they make noise and fight for their lives. Shouting, kicking, screaming — yelling out, “This is not my father, help me!” — anything like this will help others to take notice of the situation. They should never, ever get into a stranger’s car; the chances of staying alive after getting into an abductor’s car plummet. Stay out of that vehicle no matter what it takes. Teach this to your child.

LZ: At what age can children stay home alone? (Some sources say no children under age 10 should ever stay home alone.)

Boykins: First, check your state laws to see how old your child has to be before he can legally stay home alone — this varies by state. Then, ask yourself some questions and answer them honestly: Is my child mature enough to be home alone? Is he a rule-follower? Is my trust level high enough to allow him to be home alone?

Remember to relate basic rules, and make them non-negotiable: Don’t answer the door. Don’t answer the phone — whatever works for your household. Leave emergency numbers prominently placed. Set parameters to the home-alone experience; maybe agree that you will check in every hour at first. Being home alone is a big step toward independence for kids, and the more you do it, the more it is good for your peace of mind and their practicing independence.

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