QUESTION: My son has just started primary school. We are new to the area so I don’t know many people there. He is collected a few days a week by after-school-care staff while I am at work. I’ve had a few conversations with him about personal safety, such as not getting into a stranger’s cars. However, I feel it’s a fine line between frightening him and giving him the necessary information to keep him safe, given that I’m not with him all of the time. What skills does he need without terrifying him?
ANSWER: When we hear about children who are missing, or have been abducted, it sends out so many warning signals that we can easily get overwhelmed.
A missing child is every parent’s worst nightmare. The thought of the terror and hurt that our child might experience brings out every protective facet we have.
The coverage that such cases of child abduction get in all media tends to skew our risk judgements, such that we overestimate the risks that children (and we) face from such horrendous crimes.
In fact, the number of children who are abducted is comparatively small and people they know usually take them (such as one spouse taking a child after separation).
It is important to keep a sense of perspective about the dangers that our children actually face.
The tendency to overprotect our children is always there, leaving them without any self-protective skills because they never had an opportunity to develop them.
That said, it is still pragmatic to give our children advice and guidance about their personal safety when we are not around.
Your son is still young and so he won’t have an eye for the possible dangers that other people may present to him. You are wise to talk to him practically about sticking with people he knows.
The most important thing your child needs to know is what each day’s plan will be. This means that when something unusual happens that is not part of the expected routine, he will be alert and more likely to react safely.
In your situation, that would mean charting each day and who will be picking your son up so he knows to expect you or the driver from after-school care.
If it is the after-school-care driver, what kind of vehicle will he expect? Does it have a logo on it or what make and model is it? You can set up a code word that only you, your son and the driver have. If your son is not greeted with the code word then he can know not to get into the vehicle.
Be clear about the boundaries you set for your child.
At your son’s age you don’t need to frighten him with why he needs to stick within the boundaries. He just needs to know that there are places he can go and places he can’t.
As he gets older you can explain more of the rationale for why these rules keep him safe and what dangers he is being kept safe from.
Children do have good instincts and often will get a gut feeling about a situation. We may all have noticed that sense at times when things aren’t right.
Let children be confident about listening to their instincts. Because we can’t be with them all the time they do have to use their own judgement sometimes and we need to encourage them to do so.
When children get older, it will be important for them to keep us updated about their plans and their activities.
Cellphones for older children, while they may have drawbacks, come into their own as a tool to keep them safer and more contactable.
Allow and encourage your child to be assertive. There may come a time when they need to feel okay about shouting “No!” and running away. For now, though, I think it is enough to give him some basic rules. He doesn’t need additional fear to motivate him to stick to the rules.
As a guide I have listed rules that you might want to give your son. You can give him some of them now and some as he gets older.
Don’t be afraid to repeat them, role-play them and get your child to list the rules back to you.