A few weeks ago, friends of mine dropped their 10-year-old daughter off for her first skateboard lesson at a local skate park. They wandered around watching the other children skate. The environment was new, as was the instructor. After a short while, the instructor told the young girl that he "had left something in his car" and asked her to "come with him." The child probably thought this "dude" was an authority figure, and she knew that her parents were nearby, so she went with him. All was well in the end, but this is one of those situations that could have ended badly.
Now it may sound overprotective, but it made me realize what and when we should teach our children how to responsibly react to adults. How do we teach our children to judge the right adult to ask for and accept help from? We tell our children to respect adults. Children inherently trust adults, and the result is that children probably trust adults more than is warranted. Children need to be on guard when dealing with adults, especially those they do not know well.
Parents and children have cause to be concerned. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "Nearly 800,000 children younger than 18 are missing each year, or an average of 2,185 children reported missing each day." Here are some common sense tips for kids when dealing with or confronted by a person they or their parents do not validate as "safe."
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Be on guard. Be alert. This should be the cornerstone of any child's decision-making process when it comes to communicating with strangers. They need to know not to automatically assume that "adult" equals all-knowing or trustworthy. Children should know that they do not have to be nice to an adult they do not know. If they feel threatened or uneasy or even if they just have a sense of being uncomfortable, they need to step back and evaluate the situation without being concerned about their manners. They also need to know that "nice and friendly" does not always mean "safe." A con-man/woman can dupe adults out of their money, and those that prey on children know how to seduce and know how to tap into a child's vulnerability. The child must be pre-armed to be aware and have tools of how to react.
Assess the Environment
Children should take a moment to assess the environment they are in when being approached by someone they do not know. Is it a safe place where other known adults are in close proximity? Is there a way to get away if needed? Has he or she been to this place before and do they know where the nearest safe zone is and how to get there if necessary?
When a child is approached by an adult they do not know to "help" out or to direct them somewhere, an alarm should go off, especially when the child is somewhere unfamiliar or in an environment where they may be vulnerable. Why does the adult need help? Where do they want the child to go? Who said that the child should go with this person? The special "signal word" from parents is good but can easily be downplayed or dismissed by a smart pedophile.
Look for Someone of Authority
Your child should look for the nearest "safest" adult, a person of authority; a policeman or fireman, the school principal, a teacher, a friend's parent, even a store clerk or doorman. Speak with your child about how to spot someone they can trust. Good hints are official uniforms, store managers, someone they have known for a long while or who their parents trust, perhaps a parent or nanny of a friend. The child should be empowered by their parents to know it is OK to say they are not comfortable or to be rude or to ask someone else, even another stranger, to please help.
The Closest Distance Between Two Points Is a Well-Lit Straight Line
The path to getting to and from school, a friend's house, piano lessons, soccer practice, skateboarding lessons, etc. should be quick and well-lit, and practiced with a parent or older sibling until it becomes familiar. If your child is required to walk on their own, take the time to walk the route with them for the first few times and, in addition to directions on how to cross the streets, safely point out landmarks and places they can retreat to if necessary. Stores along the way are good safety zones and are an easy retreat or "safe haven" to stay until help arrives or the danger is gone. They should know they can ask the person at the cash register or behind the counter to help them and to call their parents or the police.
There Is Safety in Numbers
Kids will not always be able to travel in packs, but when they can, they should. Two is better than one, and three is better than two. Kids should travel together and before letting another child head off somewhere without a partner, they should always look out for one another. They should always ask where the other is going and if their parent knows where they will be. There is also safety in knowing numbers -- such as their street address, mom's and dad's cell numbers, the next door neighbors' numbers and other emergency contact information. Write all of this down for them, make sure it is in their backpack and if they have a cell phone, program it for them and make sure they know how to access it.
Kids need to know that their parents or caregivers care about where they are and what they are doing. It is not because you are invading their space, but because you want to protect them. You want them to feel safe. Furthermore, have them text you messages -- e.g., "in the bus," "just arrived at school," "in cab 8T12 heading home." These texts provide enormous peace of mind for the parents and let the child know you care. Responding quickly to the text with an "OK, great" lets the child know that if there is a problem, you are there for instant help and/or advice. This process provides a sense of independence to the child as well as a feeling of security; you are still there for them, even though you are not holding their hand. Everyone can feel more relaxed. It also sets up a pattern so should something bad happen, there is earlier recognition and means to get help.
Use Your Words, But When You Have to... Use Your Vocal Cords
Kids should know that they don't have to talk to someone they do not know. This is not about being polite, it is about being safe. Rude, at times, is appropriate. Not answering a stranger's approach is smart. Running away is OK. When all else fails, it's OK to scream for help. Screaming, shouting, fighting and having a tantrum gets attention.
Research and information is available. A great resource is http://missingkids.com.