Recently my daughter's school sent out a message reminding parents that any changes in school pickups must be made in writing. Part of the reason for such a reminder mid-year is because of an incident in which a stranger attempted to pick up a child at the school. But it is not only up to the schools; parents need to work with their children to teach them how to help stop and recognize stranger dangers. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:
1. What's the magic word? Usually that sentence in our house is followed by a please or thank you. But when you are discussing strangers, it is important to set up a "code word" a word that only your child and the person picking them up would know. It can't be commonplace, but it does need to be easy enough that even a kindergarten aged child can remember it. Change it up occasionally, just to be extra safe.
2. Do you have a 'watchdog?' Our school has a "watchdog" (dad) program. This program provides dads with a valuable opportunity to help out at the school. They provide extra security and support during the school day, drop offs and pick-ups. Not only do the children get valuable male role models, but they also get an important chance to share their school day with their dad. Does your school have one?
3. It's time to have 'the talk.' There are several "the talks" that parents have to have with their children along the way. But if your child is in school (preschool, daycare or regular school), it is definitely time to have the stranger danger talk, if you haven't already had one. Children need to know what is out there and what to do if they encounter these situations. My 3-year-old knew no stranger and would talk to anyone, so in my family it was incredibly important to start at a young age. Stay calm when talking to your child. Explain there are some people out there who do bad things and that can and will hurt you. Say enough to make your point and kids will ask questions when they are ready for the answers.
4. You've talked the talk, now act the act. Role playing can be a valuable tool to help young children understand what happens with strangers. They are creative and imaginative creatures; after all, look how they enter their own world when playing.
5. If it smells like a rotten banana, it is a rotten banana. Teach them to trust their instincts. If your child is frightened by a person, there may be a reason for that. Listen to your child when they try to explain their fears even if you don't feel the same way. More importantly, respect their decisions; it teaches them to trust their instincts.
6. Back to basics. Talk to children about the basic methods of taking a child. Strangers who ask kids for directions or help with anything, from carrying a package to looking for a lost pet, offering candy or saying mom or dad sent me, should send warning signals to your child to run.
7. Practice makes perfect . If your children old enough, you should take a walk, go for a drive and leave the kids alone. This offers a test of the code word system with someone you can trust, and that they do too. My oldest son didn't answer the door to the police because he was home alone and the officer didn't know the code word. The police disagreed with my parenting, but in the end realized that parenting trumps police in this circumstance.
8. Make some noise, get some attention. Teach your child that if they are, or someone they see, is threatened, they should make some noise, fight, scream, and kick. It is the one time in their life a full-blown temper tantrum is a good thing. Teach them to go to an adult that is a mom with child, teacher or someone you know. In stores look for uniforms, and report the stranger danger.
9. More is not always better. Limit the people who are allowed to pick your child up to just a couple so they always know who and what to expect.
10. Keep up the good work. Don't stop just because your children are older. Even teens that "know it all" need a little reminder from time to time about stranger dangers. Older children encounter a whole new world of stranger dangers that parents need to address.
It's a scary topic for parents and children and because of that, one that we may not want to address. But it is even scarier to think that our children will not know what to do if they do encounter stranger danger.
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