Genevieve Smith* realized she should start discussing “stranger danger” and kidnapping after her four-year-old son, Shane, escaped twice into their front yard. “We asked him, ‘What if someone walking by tried to have a long conversation with you?’” Shane just shrugged. That was when they started to review street-smart strategies.
Forget the birds and bees — abduction is a talk many parents don’t know how to have. Kidnappings by strangers are still very uncommon (children are much more likely to be taken by someone they’re acquainted with), but according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s National Missing Children Operations, 25 kids were abducted by strangers in 2011. And four- and five-year-olds have just grown past the toddler stage when you’re eagle-eyeing their every move.
“You start by teaching children this age a few basic safety rules,” says Tracey J. Warren, national director of injury prevention and education for Child Safe Canada. “It’s important to keep it simple and teach them to be alert and aware of unsafe behaviours, not people.”
Examples of unsafe behaviour include things like adults urging kids to disobey their parents or “keep a secret,” or being offered a ride and told they don’t need permission from their mom or dad. It’s difficult, however, to get your message across without being scary.
“We don’t want to give kids really emotionally charged messaging,” says Noni Classen, director of education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg. “It should be matter of fact, just like putting on your bike helmet so you’re safer.”
So what messages and tools can you give kids this age?
1. Always ask for permission
Drill the habit of asking before they go anywhere out of your immediate view—like to the other side of the park—into your kids. Classen advocates a buddy system. “When they’re young, a ‘buddy’ is someone who supervises them,” she says. “We teach them to bring a buddy whenever they go anyplace.”
2. Be loud
Classen urges kids to remember, “If you’re asked to go and your parents don’t know, shout no!” However, if your child is lost in a public place, teach them to stay where they are and call for you. Classen recommends teaching them they can also ask for help from a mother with her children or someone with a uniform on, such as an officer or a security guard, but that they shouldn’t leave with anyone other than the adult they came with.
Move, kick, bite—teach your child to make it difficult and physically uncomfortable if someone ever tries to take them.
4. It’s too early for code words
According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, families can use a code word (to identify who a child can go with) starting around the age of eight. But it’s not a great strategy for the five and younger set, not only because they can’t totally understand the concept, but because they’re littler and easier to nab. “If someone approaches your kid in a car, I don’t want them standing around talking to them, because it’s easy for an adult to grab a small child,” says Warren.
5. Play it again
Remember this is a repeat discussion to have. That’s what Rebecca Green does with her six-year- old son, Kadyn. “Kids his age don’t ‘get’ serious sit-down conversations,” she says. “I find short, frequent, casual chats about it are the way to get through.”
“It’s not a 30-minute crash course and then you’re done.” agrees Classen. “That’s like introducing seat belts at four and then saying at eight, ‘I told you when you were four to put your seat belt on!’ It’s an ongoing conversation.”
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in the July 2013 issue with the headline, “Street smarts”, p.56.