Stranger Danger!

One of the worst fears a parent can have is the thought of a child going missing or being harmed. Although incidences of child abductions are rare, we still need to reinforce basic safety principles in order to educate and prepare them in case they ever find themselves in a bad situation.

Street proofing can be defined as a child’s ability to recognize potential danger and to take appropriate action to avoid it. Aside from being physically smaller, children often don’t have the experience or wherewithal to see beyond the surface, and this makes them more vulnerable. There are no guarantees of course, but arming them with some solid skills can go a long way in helping to keep them safe.

What is a ‘Stranger’?

For years, we have been telling children never to talk to strangers. But really, how do we define who a stranger is exactly? This is also complicated by the fact that many incidences involving children are perpetrated by family or friends, and this only serves to confuse things even more.

Experts indicate that re-defining strangers as ‘people you don’t know very well’ can help to ease some of the confusion, as this broadens the spectrum somewhat. Teaching kids that ‘all strangers are bad’ also doesn’t really work if they are looking for someone to help. We want to protect them, while not instilling unnecessary fear about the outside world. ‘Bad’ people don’t always look bad, aren’t always men and are not always adults. Ultimately, it’s up to parents, teachers and others to create awareness in children through consistent instruction and examples. The key is to teach them who they are more likely to be able to trust (school staff / police officers & firemen in uniform / transit personnel / retail staff / security guards / airline staff / parents with young children etc.) if they ever need help.

Additional Tips

Here is a listing of some other practical steps that can help to reduce the risk to a child.

  • When teaching your child about street safety, be sure to practice regularly and make the experience engaging for them. Try role-playing or make a game of it, and test their knowledge about what they could potentially encounter.
  • In keeping with the above list of people who could be asked for help, define what locations are more likely to be safe places for kids. Police stations, fire halls, hospitals, trusted neighbours, gas stations or even retail stores are good options.
  • In addition to telling children where they could go in the case of an emergency, also outline locations that they should avoid. This would include trails or laneways, wooded lots, railway tracks, construction sites or anywhere else that is too isolated.
  • Always use a buddy system when children are out without adults. There is strength in numbers.
  • Make an effort to really know the families of your kid’s friends, especially when it comes to in-home play dates or sleepovers
  • Never display a child’s name on their clothing, backpack or lunchbox etc. so that a stranger can’t appear more familiar if they use it in conversation
  • Establish a secret family code word that can be used in case someone other than a parent or guardian needs to pick up a child from school or an activity. This is a good way to immediately establish trust, especially in the case of a family emergency.
  • Children should always scream, yell, kick and run if they are ever grabbed by a stranger. Be sure to explain to them that yelling ‘Help me, this is not my Mother / Father!’ will get more of a reaction than simply screaming, as this could be seen as just a temper tantrum.
  • With regard to the defined ‘people they don’t know very well’, children should never go with them for any reason, accept anything from them or engage in conversation. If they don’t feel safe or their instincts tell them that this isn’t a good situation, it’s OK for them to leave right away and seek the help of another trusted adult.
  • When approached by someone in a car, have children run in the opposite direction that the car was traveling and tell an adult
  • Children up to a certain age should never go anywhere without their parent’s permission. Without completely overwhelming them with supervision, it’s simply good to know where they are, what they’re doing and when they’ll be back.
  • Explain that adults seek help from other adults and not from children. This makes sense to kids, even at an early age. So when a stranger claims to need help finding a puppy or kitten, then it’s likely just a trick.
  • As soon as they are old enough, having your kids carry a mobile phone with them is a good way to keep in touch and to alert you in case there’s an emergency
  • Be sure to let kids know that if another adult tells them to keep a secret from Mom or Dad, then it’s a big sign of danger. They should tell their parents right away.

The intention with street proofing is not to create a sense of paranoia or fear, but to lay down some fundamental, common sense rules for child safety. It’s always best to be prepared.

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