When my daughter was still in elementary school there was a stranger danger alert.
While I no longer have a child at home, seeing this picture on Facebook brought it all rushing back. My daughter rode her bike back and forth to school. We lived just a few blocks from the school which made her a walker but she had no one to walk with her. Due to severe health problems at the time resulting in surgery, I was unable to drive her.
According to the school, riding a bike to school was considered a “privilege” reserved for 3rd graders and above. I finally got them to concede that riding a bike by yourself was safer than walking by yourself. And since they weren’t willing to walk with her or find someone to do so, they finally allowed her to ride solo.
In addition, I had gotten my daughter a Tracfone that she took with her anytime she was out by herself so she could call for help if she fell off her bike riding around the neighborhood or later on needed to check in to tell me when she got to her final destination (store, library, etc). I used to get her the card with a year of service every Christmas and every year she had leftover minutes that would roll over. At the time they only came with 150 minutes, so she did great!
Anyway, on “stranger danger day” the whole school was on lock down. I was panicking because she was late and I had no way of finding out what was going on and no way to go looking for her. (I think this was a week or two after my abdominal surgery.) I called the school and thankfully found out what was going on. My daughter in the meantime was panicking because she was going to be late and she knew I would worry and they wouldn’t let her call home on her phone or theirs! (Yes, I took that up with the school too.)
Here in the Midwest, all towns are equipped with tornado sirens. They are tested everywhere on Wednesdays at noon and carry an unmistakable sound that lets everyone for miles know of impending danger.
I wrote a letter to the mayor, the school board and the principal asking that a similar system be utilized to put everyone on alert. My suggestion to them was that we use something similar to the tornado siren system to alert everyone to what was going on.
Not only would a siren notify parents as to why students would be delayed, but it would alert students to “drill” type procedures like a fire alarm as well as letting area neighbors know that they needed to be on the look out for suspicious people in the area. My suggestion was declined with a letter telling me that it was too much effort and unnecessary.
While I always knew I placed more value on my daughter than anyone else did, it was very disturbing to see it written out and her worth be considered so negligible. It was the following school year that I began homeschooling my daughter.
In the meantime, in the “aftermath” of the event, one of the local news stations had interviewed a few people and it was on the air that very night. One police officer commented that it’s very hard to catch “strangers” because children made such horrible witnesses because they have no concept of age, weight, etc.
Following the suggestions that officer made during that interview, my wheels got moving. We called an “emergency” Brownie meeting that the parents were required to attend with the girls. We did mock sessions asking the kids to describe us. We met at the school, so having the chalkboard at our disposal we wrote out the answers the girls came up. Adults were described as being anywhere from 20 to 100 years old, up to 1500 lbs and 20 feet tall!
When we asked the kids to describe what a stranger looked like, it was like asking them to describe a comic villain. They were confused at first when we told them that a stranger is anyone you don’t know. They can be handsome, friendly, clean and can even have a puppy.
We then taught them (and their parents) that rather than trying to come up with numbers, to do comparisons instead. Cindy’s dad looks as old as my dad or he’s fat like Uncle Bob or Patty’s mom is skinny like Aunt Judy, wears her hair like my babysitter or smiles like Grandma.
Size, shape, skin color, hair color, hair style and car makes, models & colors are all something that can be accurately communicated this way as long as children are taught to look for the comparisons so they can related them to you or police.
If a child does witness anything and are communicating with police, parents will be called and involved. From there, police can clarify descriptions with the parents… how old is Dad, how are Uncle Bob or Aunt Judy built, etc.
I used to teach employees that the best form of security is good customer service. Engage the customer and maintain eye contact. There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids this too. Those people who do bad things look for easy targets, whether it’s an adult or child. They want someone who is easily intimidated and manipulated. Assertiveness training is not just for adulthood, a dynamic personality keeps people safe at any age.
None of these things need be taught by panic. The goal is not to teach paranoia but rather awareness. Play is always the best way to teach. Make it a game.
- Take pictures of celebrities and have your child describe them trying to have you guess who it is.
- Point out scenarios that you see on the street that you feel could be unsafe and engage your child in conversation. “See that little girl alone on the street corner? That doesn’t look safe to me. What do you think?”
- It shows you listen to them and value their opinion
- It teaches them to look around them to see situations and to watch out for other people.
- Selling popcorn and cookies for Scouts or fundraisers for school or church are great ways to get them to practice eye contact and assertiveness (along with salesmanship, manners & cash handling).
Passwords are also a great means of security that we utilized as well. It’s that extra step that not only makes them feel safe but makes them feel empowered. We now live in a world filled with passwords, get them used to it early. Let them learn what a good password is and let them practice even when you pick them up. It’s a secret shared with only you two.
One last thing. Teach your child to listen to their gut (or their “spidey sense” as I like to call it). Whether it’s a neighbor or a relative, if they give your kid the creeps, please don’t force contact or allow them to be alone with that person.
Learning to trust your primal instincts is a good skill and one we unfortunately don’t listen to often enough. How many times have you done something, only to kick yourself later commenting “I KNEW I shouldn’t have done that!” or “I had a bad feeling about that, but did it anyway”?
When Kid was little I read an article about a study done with victims of molestation. Almost all of them had come from families where there was forced intimacy… meaning “go give Uncle Bernie a kiss”, “I don’t want to, I don’t like him” only to be told to do it anyway or something guilt provoking like “he’ll be sad” or he’s gonna cry”. To adults it tends to be a big game to teach about manners. I remember these vividly from my own childhood.
Sadly, instead of teaching manners, it teaches children that adults have authority over their bodies. It also teaches that if they don’t listen to “Uncle Bernie” that they can get yelled at, punished, etc. by their parents or their parents will be mad at them. I had never considered this until reading that article and it had a profound impact me based on incidents in my own childhood.
I know you want to keep your kids safe, and I want your kids to be safe too. The world is a scary place but that doesn’t mean they have to be scared of it. Give them the tools they need that keep them safe and will also help you sleep at night.