Keep your kids safe in an unsafe world
How do parents help their kids understand danger without scaring them? Here’s expert advice on how to talk to them about it
IT’S a story that’s left parents asking themselves plenty of uncomfortable questions. If your kids aren’t safe in a family restaurant then where is it okay to take them?
South Africans are still reeling as they try to absorb what happened to a seven-year-old girl at a Dros restaurant in Pretoria recently. One minute she was playing in the children’s area, the next she was dragged into a toilet cubicle and allegedly raped.
But even before this, parents were feeling jittery following a spate of viral videos that appeared to show child traffickers trying to abduct children from shopping malls and other venues. Although police say in all likelihood the videos were hoaxes some schools aren’t willing to take the risk and have beefed up security.
Meanwhile parents are wondering what steps they can take to protect their children. On the one hand you want them to remain innocent and carefree – but on the other you desperately need them to be aware of the risks.
How do you warn them of the dangers without scaring them and destroying their faith in humanity? IT’S GOOD TO TALK Marietha Johnson, director of Childline in the Free State, says it’s important to start having conversations about safety with your child from a young age.
“Basically from the time you’re prepared to leave them to play in kids’ areas at restaurants, that’s when you need to start having these discussions. So from around the age of three,” she says.
You should also make it a habit to talk to your children about a wide range of issues – what’s happening in the news, issues affecting friends. Speak in an honest and open way so they feel confident to ask questions and share experiences.
“This is the best antidote to any external dangers, as your child is more likely to feel emotionally safe and trust will be an integral part of the relationship,” says
Anne Cawood, a social worker in private practice in Cape Town and the author of the Boundaries parenting series. KNOW YOUR CHILD
Three- to five-year-olds are curious and naturally trusting. They easily respond to adults who appear kind or supportive and don’t grasp the consequences of potentially dangerous situations.
Six- to nine-year-olds have a better understanding of right and wrong. They’re able to remember information and put it into practise but may get overwhelmed in a difficult situation. 10- to 13-year-olds may sometimes be overconfident and over-estimate their ability to handle a tricky situation. KEEP IT LIGHT AND FUN Don’t overwhelm them with information. Even if you’re feeling seriously freaked out it’s important to keep calm.
Many experts say it’s best not to use the word “stranger” at all. Instead, try using the term “tricky people,” suggests American child-safety expert Pattie Fitzgerald. “Tricky people” are grownups – both familiar and unknown – who try to trick children into breaking the rules of safety (see box).
Cawood recommends that rather than taking an unduly negative approach – for example, “Don’t ever talk to a stranger” – rather play the “what if ” game. Ask questions such as, “What would you do if someone you don’t know wants to talk to you?”
“What would you do if an adult you don’t know approaches you at the park when I’m not looking and asks for help finding a lost puppy?”
With younger children you can even engage in role play and pretend to be someone who’s trying to get them to break their safety rules – perhaps by offering them a sweet. Role play will allow you to get an idea of how they might react and suggest better alternatives. TEACH THEM BOUNDARIES While much of the focus right now is on “stranger danger” sadly the real risk often lies closer to home, Johnson points out. International statistics show that in 90% of cases of child sexual abuse the victim knows the perpetrator. It could be a relative, family friend or acquaintance.
From the age of three kids should know the correct terms for their genitals and that anything in that area is private.
Teach them that they’re the boss of their own bodies. For example, don’t put pressure on them to hug a distant uncle just for the sake of politeness. Tell them that if physical contact feels uncomfortable, a fist bump or high five will suffice.
Tell them if they’re feeling scared or uncomfortable it’s okay to say no – even to a grown-up. And if their wishes are ignored they must kick up a fuss and make a big noise until someone listens. Listen to your children, Johnson says. Pay special attention if there’s an adult they don’t seem to like or appear to fear. KEEPING THEM SAFE
Restaurant play areas If possible sit where you can see the play area from your table or at least have a view of the CCTV cameras that many restaurants have installed. If you can’t see the area from where you’re sitting, get up and check in regularly with your child, even if there’s a minder on duty, Johnson says.
Public toilets Don’t allow young children to go in unaccompanied. Even older children shouldn’t go alone – rather go in pairs, Cawood says. Johnson agrees it’s best if parents accompany young children to the toilet, but if this isn’t possible, they can wait outside for the child.
Going out alone Cawood suggests that children under 12 shouldn’t go out alone to parks and shops, for instance. When they’re older and if they show a sense of responsibility this boundary can be extended, she adds, but only if they live in safe neighbourhoods. “However at all times an adult needs to know where the child is, and who he or she is with.”
Sleepovers Johnson recommends these be avoided for children younger than 10 – unless it’s with close family members. “Sleepovers should be very carefully supervised,” Cawood cautions. “Until well into the teen years the parents who are supervising the sleepover should be well known to you.”
Code words Have a secret code word with your child. Tell them that if you ever send someone else to school to fetch them you will tell that person the secret word. Check your child knows the word each time you drop them off.
RIGHT: Parents should talk to their kids about safety from a young age. ABOVE: Children younger than 12 shouldn’t walk around in public alone.
FAR LEFT: Young children sometimes become overwhelmed in difficult situations. LEFT: Experts recommend that parents approach sleepovers with caution. Statistics show that in 90% of child sexual abuse cases the victim knows the perpetrator.