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.

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