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Beyond 'stranger danger': Real safety rules for kids

From author and educator Amy Tiemann, Ph.D.

It is unfortunate that the word “stranger” rhymes with “danger,” because this association has led to a concept that is as widespread as it is unhelpful and misleading. The vast majority of strangers are not dangerous, and most people who do want to bother or harm kids are actually people who are known to the family.

Growing up, many of us who are now parents may not have been taught much beyond “stranger danger,” making it difficult to know how to teach our own children a more effective approach to personal safety. Fortunately though, there is excellent training available for today’s parents and kids. As poet Maya Angelou says, “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better you did better.” This is true for us, and our children.

Since 2006 I have been working with Kidpower, a personal safety program that has trained over 1.2 million people around the world. Kidpower training turns the old concept upside-down by talking about “stranger safety,” and I believe this new perspective is revolutionary and empowering in itself. Even better, the program's approach is reinforced with concrete skills.

Kidpower executive director Irene van der Zande has written a chapter called “Skills for Safety, Skills for Independence” for our new book “Courageous Parents, Confident Kids.” Here are some of Kidpower’s basic strategies for teaching children about “stranger safety.”

Talking to your kids about strangers
Children need to understand that a stranger is just someone you don’t know. We believe most people are good, and this means most strangers are good. Being afraid of strangers does not make children safer – it just makes them fearful. Instead, children need clear guidance on how to be safe with all kinds of people, including strangers.

Teach children that they do NOT have to worry about strangers if they follow the safety rules. If children are by themselves, the safety rule is to come and check with an adult first before getting close to or talking to anyone they don't know well. Help kids come up with specific examples of people they know well and people they don't.

Safety rules for children when they are on their own:

*Most people are good. This means most strangers are good.
* A stranger is just someone I don’t know and can look like anybody.
* The rules are different when I am with an adult who is taking care of me and when I am on my own. When I am on my own, my job is to check first with the adult in charge before I let a stranger get close to me, talk to me, or give me anything.
* If I am old enough to be out on my own without an adult to ask, it is safer to be where there are other people close by to get help if I need it.
* I do not give personal information to a stranger or to someone who makes me feel uncomfortable.
* It is OK to get help from strangers if an emergency is happening to me, and there is no one close by that I know.
* My job is to check first with the adult in charge before I go anywhere with anyone (a stranger or someone I know). I will tell the adult in charge where I am going, who will be with me, and what I will be doing.
* I will have a safety plan for how to get help anywhere I go.
* I will know what my family's safety rules are for children answering the door, being on the phone, and being on the Internet.

To be able to follow these rules, children need to practice:

* How to stand and walk with awareness and confidence
* How to move out of reach from someone approaching them
* How to walk away from a stranger without waiting even if that person is being very nice
* How to check for permission first even when someone says not to
* How to get help from a busy or insensitive adult if the child is lost or scared
* How to make noise, run and get to safety in case of an emergency
* What to say and do if a stranger approaches them at home

These are just a few of the personal safety skills that Kidpower has to offer. In "Courageous Parents, Confident Kids," Irene provides an in-depth discussion of setting boundaries with people we know, as well as safety with strangers. The new book also features a detailed chapter written by iLookBothWays.com Internet safety expert Linda Criddle. Working together, our goal is to help kids learn to interact and explore with safety and confidence, in the “real world” and online.

Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., is the author of "Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family" and founder of the popular online resource MojoMom.com. She collaborates with the contributors to the new book "Courageous Parents, Confident Kids," to lead the way to a new era of empowered parenting. Learn more and sign up now to receive a free download of "Courageous Parents, Confident Kids" by visiting www.mojomom.com.