It's only been a month since the school year has begun, and already I've received a district-wide communiqué about a suspicious individual trying to offer a kid a ride home in the rain. Fortunately, that child ran back to the safe confines of his school for help. But it was the perfect opportunity to remind my two elementary-aged boys about "stranger danger."
"What happens if a person you don't know offers you a ride?" I asked my sons. "What if he says Mommy sent him? What if he says Mommy is hurt and needs you to come with him to the hospital?"
"Don't get in the car," they droned, annoyed that I was cutting into their TV time.
While they may pretend not to listen, I have to believe these little reminders will sink in over time.
That's true, says Joelle Casteix, child sexual abuse prevention expert and author of upcoming book The Well-Armored Child: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Abuse. In fact, she says, such teachable moments are a back-to-school must.
But it's also important to address a more likely danger: falling victim to grooming, or the process sexual predators use to gain kids' trust.
"Teaching 'stranger danger' is easy," Casteix says. "What's hard is teaching your child to be less vulnerable to the other 99.99 percent of child predators out there: trusted and beloved adults who use their position to gain access to kids."
So as our kids begin another school year, follow these five principles to help them self-protect while out of our care.
1. Talk about "gut instincts."
Referred to as the body's second brain, Casteix says, it's no accident that we refer to flashes of instinct as "gut feelings" or "gut reactions." And it's critical we teach children from a young age to trust it.
"It's our original survival instinct," she says.
From kindergarten to high school age, your kids should know the concept of "trusting your gut." For instance, Casteix says, talk about how stomach "butterflies" feel during times of excitement or stress. Or when peer-pressure situations made a kid do something despite a gut feeling.
"Encourage your child to make decision based on thinking and feeling," she says. "I'm not talking about basing decisions on emotion, but telling your child it's OK to embrace that 'inner instinctual pull.' You want your kid to be able to trust their gut and walk away."
2. Don't keep secrets.
This may sound extreme because oftentimes childhood secrets are harmless. But they can become much more dangerous as kids grow older.
"That's the number-one tool that predators use: 'This is our little secret. We have a special secret that we don't share with anyone,'" Casteix says.
Of course there are exceptions, like the secret party you're throwing for Grandma or a birthday gift for Dad. But it's critical to set the tone in your family that, in general, you just don't keep secrets from one another.
"If anyone wants you to keep a secret, it can mean someone is being hurt," Casteix says. Further, if your kid thinks it's okay to keep a secret, how can we parents help her when she really needs us?
"The more you open up the lines of communication, the more you become your child's go-to person as a sounding board," she says. "And the less likely they'll be in a grooming situation."
3. Don't force children to hug or kiss an adult.
It doesn't matter if it's your great aunt Bertha or a longtime family friend. If your child doesn't want to hug or kiss an adult, don't push the matter, especially with younger children.
"When we force toddlers to hug adults... we reinforce two bad behaviors: We are telling our children that we don't respect their body boundaries; and we are telling them that it's OK for adults to touch them in ways they don't like," Casteix writes in a recent post.
"We are also implicitly telling them to go against their gut feelings about creepy adults," she says.
4. Honor a child's negative opinion of an adult.
It's so easy to disregard your kid when he says he doesn't like a particular coach, teacher or neighbor, especially if you like them, she writes in her blog. "Don't be silly," we might say.
"But don't do it," Casteix says. "Respect your child's feelings. Ask them why he or she thinks that way, and tell them to steer clear of that adult while remaining respectful."
5. Stop punishing the "tattle tale."
Yes, it's annoying for us grownups to hear repeatedly, "She's being mean to me," or "They were hitting." Why can't they just deal with it, we grownups ask ourselves. So it's no wonder that we as a society have maligned the "tattler."
But you have to remember, Casteix says, that young kids don't have the reasoning skills to "deal with it" on their own; they come to us because they genuinely need help solving a problem.
"Kids just want their peers to know that everyone needs to be nice, behave in a positive manner and cooperate," she says. "These kids -- the tattlers -- are setting the bar and setting it high. And they are being transparent about it.
"When we punish tattletales, we are teaching our children to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing," she says. "In fact, I don't call it tattling anymore. I call it 'mandatory reporting.'"
For example, a kid with a new toy he received as a birthday gift and doesn't want to share. Inevitably, a disgruntled kid is likely to tell a parent, "He's not sharing his toy!"
Your first reaction should be to help that child reason: "Bobby just got that scooter for his birthday yesterday. How do you feel when you get a new toy? You want it to yourself at first, right? Do you think that's how he feels?"
In doing so, you set the stage for children to come to you when it really matters.
"If you shut down and say, 'Don't tattle on your sister,' that kid thinks, 'Mom doesn't want to hear about this stuff, so I just wont' say anything,'" she says.
But what if your child witnesses peer abuse?
"Look at it instead as an opportunity to teach the importance of transparency," Casteix says. "Let kids know it is always okay to tell; it is always okay to come to Mom or Dad."
For more advice, visit www.casteix.com.