12 Safety Rules for Every Family
It's a big world out there. When your child was a baby or toddler, you were always there, or you left your child in the care of a trusted, nurturing adult. But as your child gets older, you'll be holding his or her hand less and less. You're bound to worry a bit about safety. And when kids begin to navigate the sidewalks or even public transit themselves, it can be positively nerve-wracking.
Every parent's nightmare is that phone call with the news that something has happened to her child. Rest assured that despite the prominent publicity that accompanies tragedies, they are very rare. And even more encouraging, experts say that most abuse cases, abductions, and even accidents involving children can be prevented if parents and children know what to do to avoid them.
So here you are, a baker's dozen list of Family Safety Rules that every parent can and should follow, that really will help you to keep your child safe as you let go of his hand.
1. Prioritize your child. The best way to keep your kids from being abused by predators, bullied, using drugs, becoming sexually active before they're ready -- virtually every risk factor you can think of -- is to maintain close relationships with them. Eat dinner together as many nights as you can. Make sure you have one on one time -- unstructured, to see what bubbles up and help your child express emotions and problems -- with each child every day, preferably for 15 minutes. Plan "Special Time" with each child as often as you can, and at minimum every week, which means unstructured one-on-one time that they decide how to use (this isn't for homework or reading to them). Talk with your kids constantly -- and listen more than you talk.
2. Every child should know how to SWIM. And be sure your child knows NEVER to dive into water that she has not already personally established to be deep and safe.
3. When your child goes to someone's house on a playdate, be sure you know the family, and watch your child for cues about what's happened. Talk to him about what goes on at his friends' houses. Are the kids unsupervised on the computer? Allowed to stroll up to the store alone? Would he be able to recognize if his friend's mother was drunk? Would he know what to do if his friend's father touched him inappropriately? What if his friend suggested they look at porn, or get down his dad's gun, or play a new "secret" game?
4. The best way to keep children from being bullied is to make sure they have high self esteem and strong relationships at home and with peers. Bullies prey on children whom they perceive to be vulnerable, including needy children who are so desperate for peer acceptance that they continue to hang around a group of peers even when one of the group leaders begins to mistreat them. Role-play with your child how he can stand up to a bully by saying that he will not let anyone abuse or intimidate him, and then waking away. Kids need to be reassured that there is no shame in being frightened by a bully, in walking away, or in telling an adult and asking for help. Bullying situations can escalate, and saving face is less important than saving their life. For more on protecting your child from bullying, see Bully-proofing Your Child.
5. Listen to your kids and respond to their needs. "Every time you respond to your child's cry of hunger or pain or discomfort, you raise a child who knows he will be heard." say safety experts Ric Bentz and Christine Allison. Children who feel heard and taken seriously are much more likely to stick up for themselves, to fight back, and to ask for help.
6. Teach your child that every part of her body covered with a swimsuit is private, belonging only to her. The statistics are that one out of every three girls will
have suffered some unwanted sexual touching by the time she is sixteen. But don’t assume only girls are sexually
molested, the stats for boys are almost as bad, one out of six. Every child should have (and be regularly read) the book My Body Belongs to Me
by Jill Starishevsky. Teach your child that no one--no adult, no child, NO ONE--should ever touch her in ways that make her uncomfortable. According to the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children, someone the child knows and trusts usually
perpetrates child molestations. Children are routinely told to stay away
from strangers, but they need to understand what inappropriate behavior
is from someone they know and trust. So it's MUCH more important to teach your child never to keep secrets of any kind, at all, ever.
If you hope your child will be able to stand up for herself in an abuse situation, it's critical that she be allowed to make her own decisions about who touches her body from an early age. Never "steal" kisses or hugs if your child says no. Never force your child to be touched by a relative or friend if she doesn't want contact. She must be respectful, and you can ask her to blow Grandpa a kiss instead of giving a hug, but she must be in charge of her own body.
7. Teach your child that in your family, no one ever keeps secrets. Molesters usually begin "grooming" by seducing kids into complicity with mild secrets: "Don't tell your mom I gave you candy." Your child needs to know that anytime anyone asks her to keep a secret, she is to tell you immediately. In fact, I often hear that another child, older in years or experience,
is the one who "teaches a secret game" to a child, with tragic results. Make sure
your child knows he can tell you anything, and that you will love him no
matter what he's done.
8. Teach your child that most people are okay, but there are a few people out there who do bad things, and could hurt her. She needs to be told explicitly that it is more important to stay safe and to trust herself than to be polite. It is okay for her to question, disobey, and even run away from someone whose behavior is making her acutely uncomfortable. Predators give signals; your child just needs your support to trust herself in reading them. Teach your child what constitutes improper behavior on the part of an adult, for instance, that it is inappropriate for adult strangers to offer children treats or to ask them for directions, and their reaction should be to walk away immediately, and always to fight back and shout "Help me! This is not my parent!" If she's in a public place and needs help, she should run to a mother with a child, who can generally be counted on to help.
9. Don’t leave your child with anyone, even your boyfriend, unless you completely trust him. The good and bad news about abuse is that most of it, statistically, is not perpetrated by strangers. It happens at the hands of family members or the mother's boyfriend. Almost all the rest is perpetrated by trusted intimates such as coaches, religious leaders or teachers. Bad news? Yes, these are people your child trusts. But it’s good news because it’s a risk you can usually avoid, if you trust your instincts and pay attention to your child. This is just one of the many reasons that stepparents should never have the responsibility of disciplining their partner's children.
10. Cars are
dangerous. If you are transporting a little one in the back of your car, train yourself to check the car before you get out to be sure your child is out of the car, so you don't space out and forget a sleeping child -- horrible, but we're sleep-deprived parents and every year, babies and toddlers die in cars because we go on autopilot. Train your child to buckle up. Teach her to get out of any
car immediately if the driver is drunk. Role play with her what she can
say to get out of the car and to a safe place. (“I’m carsick! I'm going to throw up! Stop the car quick!”) Make
sure that she knows she can always call you for a ride regardless of the
situation. Once she starts driving, make sure she hears any personal
stories you have about kids who've died in car accidents; that story
could keep her alive.
11. When your child begins using public transit, ease into it. First, travel with him. Then, stay near him but let him travel "alone." Then, let him travel with a friend. Role play like crazy: What happens if he and his friend get separated? What if someone pulls a knife and asks for his money? (Yes, this happened to my 13 year old.) What if his cell phone falls on the subway tracks? What if some guy stares at him and it gives him the creeps? Buy him a cell phone and have him call you before he gets on the bus and after he gets off. Be sure he doesn't use his ipod en route.
12. The best way to keep your children out
of violent situations is to teach them good judgment and supervise them
adequately. Know the households where your child spends time. Teach
your children to leave any room and house immediately if a gun appears–
loaded or not. (“Oops, I just remembered I have a dentist appointment!”)
Guns don't give second chances.
13. If your child is impulsive, intervene early to help him learn to manage this trait. Daredevil behavior is bad enough in a six year old, but in a sixteen year old it can be deadly. Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens; other accidents caused by lack of judgment and impulsivity are not insignificant.