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Stranger danger: six tips to keep kids safe

Published on: May 01, 2009

boy/handYou want to coach your kid to avoid danger — without scaring them with images of creepy people lurking behind every tree. It can be a fine line for some parents, so local experts offer the following tips for keeping your elementary-age kid safe yet unafraid.

1. Keep ‘em safe indoors

The Seattle Police Department advises parents to make sure children know their complete home address, telephone number and parents’ first and last names. If they are old enough to answer the phone, kids should know how to call 911. Parents can practice with a child with the phone’s receiver button taped down.

Children who are old enough to answer the door should be taught to always check the identity of the person at the door without opening it.

2. Keep ’em safe outdoors

Parents should know their child’s route to and from school, and insist that a child never take shortcuts. Teach children never to go anywhere with anyone without parental permission.
Children should be taught to avoid isolated areas of parks and playgrounds, as well as public restrooms, building sites and dark streets. Police say parents should coach a child to think about alternatives if he or she is being bothered or followed. Walk to the places your child often walks to and look for choices. Is there a store, school or business they could enter and ask for help?

Parents should teach children to run away from someone who is bothering them, and while doing so, yell to attract as much attention as possible. If followed by a car, or if a stranger gets out of a vehicle and asks for directions, children should be taught to run away and yell.

3. Teach your child about predators’ tricks

Predators use tricks. Teach your child to recognize the common methods of luring, including bribes (such as money, toys or the promise of something the child would want), requests for help (“My puppy ran away! Will you help me look for it?”) or threats. Seattle police advise parents to teach kids that a predator can often be recognized as someone who asks a child to violate a family rule, such as telling the child she doesn’t need her parent’s permission to accompany them.

4. Develop a code word

Teach your child a “code word.” Seattle police say that if someone other than a parent needs to pick up the child unexpectedly, this person needs to know the “code word” before the child agrees to leave with him or her.

5. Know the risks

Statistically, your child is most likely to be harmed by an adult they know, rather than a stranger. Kim Estes is director of education and outreach for the Bellevue-based non-profit organization Parent Education and Child Empowerment (PEACE), which works to keep kids safe and offers workshops for parents.

Estes says that parents should be on alert for predators among people the child already knows and learn what predatory red-flag behaviors to be aware of. “One of the biggest myths that we ‘bust’ in our workshops is the idea that strangers commit all the crimes against children. In reality, someone the child knows commits 90 percent of childhood sexual abuse and 93 percent of all abductions. Adults need to realize that predators gain access to victims through the parents. By gaining the parents’ trust, predators gain access to the child.

“Parents who have frequent and open discussions about boundaries and safety rules greatly reduce a child’s risk of being a victim,” says Estes. “A child should know what the family safety rules are and what the proper roles are for adults in his or her life.”

6. Teach kids how to say ‘no!’

Amy Lang, M.A., is a local sex educator who founded Birds + Bees + Kids to help parents become informed and comfortable when talking to their children of any age about sex, love and relationships. “One of the easiest places to start in order to keep kids safer is to use the correct names for their private body parts,” says Lang. “Our genitals are the only parts of the body we don’t use the real names for. I think this leads to a sense of secrecy or shame about our bodies. When our kids can confidently talk about their vulvas and penises, without shame or secrecy, I think they are safer. Sex offenders look for kids who are clueless. A kid who says ‘vulva’ clearly has parents who are communicating with her about her body and sexuality.”

Lang says there is another important message for kids: They have the right to say “no!” — and loudly — if anyone touches them in a way that is uncomfortable. This includes grown-ups (both known and strangers) and older kids. If someone touches a child’s privates, or wants the child to touch their privates, the child should say “no!” and tell a trustworthy adult.

Kathleen F. Miller proudly brands herself as a “grizzly-bear mom,” and her 7-year-old son still never gets to use a public bathroom by himself.

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