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Moms are great at keeping their little ones safe, but what about when you're not with them? Part of teaching your kids to be confident out in the world is helping them know what to do if they get into an uncomfortable situation. New ideas about personal safety, catchy tunes and role-playing games can make teaching "stranger danger" easy for you and interesting for them. Learning with songs and activities helps kids hold onto skills that will last a lifetime.
When to Start
You can start teaching your little one about personal safety as soon as he is able to talk fluently and understand concepts like the boundary between "mine and yours." "Unfortunately, 'one size' doesn’t fit all," says Nancy McBride, national safety director of The Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "A child’s ability to understand safety skills and put them into practice is determined not just by age, but also by the child’s educational and developmental levels. To truly learn new safety skills, children need to model, rehearse and practice the skills to incorporate them into their daily lives." With young children, start by role-playing the basics: how to say "no," that their bodies belong to them and they can refuse touch at any time. You can role-play by tickling them and saying "What would you say if you wanted me to stop?"
If you ask a child what a dangerous person looks like, they will likely think of a big scary man or a creepy person. Ask your child to draw a picture of a dangerous person, so you can understand his idea of "dangerous." The Yello Dyno child safety program, recommended by Gavin de Becker, the author of "Protecting the Gift," teaches the concept of "tricky people." They have designed a catchy song "Tricky People" (available on YouTube.com) which gives children scenarios of tricky people trying to lure them in. Learn the song with your child and discuss its message. Or, make up your own song to your child's favorite tune to help him remember that it's OK to say "no" and how to get out of situations that make him feel uncomfortable. Remember, teach confidence, not fear.
Help Them Find Help
Though you always want to be your child's protector, there may be times when you become separated or he is in the care of someone else. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, teach your child how to speak to strangers. McBride suggests playing the "What If" game. The next time you're at the mall or park say, "What if someone said they would give you money for video games if you went to the arcade with them?" or "What if you lost sight of me and needed help from an adult? Show me who you would ask for help and tell me what you would say." Discuss why they chose that person, show them who you would choose or tell them why you agree with their pick.
Let's Get Physical
The Yello Dyno curriculum teaches kids who feel scared to "Take three steps back and run like the wind!" You can also teach your children simple self-defense techniques in a game called "Make Me Let Go." Hug them tightly from behind and say, "Make me let go of you." They can twist their bodies or arms, stomp the instep of a foot or yell "No!" or "I don't know you!" as loud as they can. Many children are taught to be nice and would never think of striking or yelling at an adult. Encouraging your kid to be aggressive if he is in danger may just save his life.
Personal Safety vs. Stranger Danger
Personal safety experts agree that teaching "stranger danger" alone is not effective, as many crimes against children are committed by those in their immediate circle of friends and family. McBride says, "Don’t confuse children by warning against 'strangers.' Danger to children is much greater from someone you or they know than from a 'stranger.'" McBride suggests teaching children that no one has the right to force, trick or pressure them into doing things they don't want to do. You can show them how to "Trust Your Tummy." Ask them to close their eyes and think of a time when they had a "worried" feeling in their stomach when they were doing something or talking to someone. Explain that this feeling in their tummy is their body's way of saying "danger" or "pay attention."