Q: Not far from where we live, a six-year-old was recently abducted at gunpoint while walking home from school. Our son is also six. What should we be teaching him to keep him safe from strangers?
A: While the event you’ve described is extremely frightening, remember that it is also extremely rare. So we need to streetproof our children without making them fearful.
The term “stranger” causes problems for two reasons: Children just don’t have a clear understanding of what a stranger is, and they are generally at greater risk from people they know than from an actual stranger.
Speak to your child in a matter-of-fact manner about safety issues. If he knows he can talk to you when he is concerned, he is more likely to be forthcoming and open. Meanwhile, be clear about some simple rules. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t get into a car with a stranger,” you can say, “Don’t go anywhere with anyone without talking to us first.” If he’s lost in a public place, teach him to stay still and ask a trustworthy adult, such as a security guard or a cashier, for help; you are more likely to find him if he doesn’t start wandering around.
Some parents use a password with their children — a special word or phrase that only friends or family know. The child could ask for this word to test whether someone who says they were sent to pick him up is, indeed, telling the truth. However, I’m conflicted about this practice, since it can give you a false sense of security. I believe it’s more effective to teach your child how to handle himself. Teach your son to trust his instincts. If he is uncomfortable with anyone — and that includes relatives and family friends — don’t force him to be alone with them or let them kiss him against his will.
Having a plan in place and speaking openly about potential safety issues will help your child know what to do if a problem does arise.