BY CINDY MACDOUGALL; RICHARD WATTS, TIMES COLONIST
Children who can approach strangers are less likely to be victims than those taught never to talk to them.
Photograph by: Greg Pender, Postmedia News, Times Colonist
My husband and I thought we'd been doing a good job teaching safety to our kids. We have consistently taught the children safety rules, most of them boiling down to listening to their gut, not going with anyone without our permission and fighting like hell if someone tries to take them.
We thought our kids were pretty safe, until earlier this month. A day after I handed in an article on solo trick-or-treating, one of my kids told a stranger all sorts of information about our family - enough that another stranger, overhearing, was able to track our family down and warn us it happened. Oh, man.
Statistics show most children who are abducted, sexually assaulted or murdered know the people who harmed them. In fact, according to the National Missing Children's Registry, only five children were abducted by a stranger between 2000 and 2001.
Even so, I was very frightened by this. People I didn't know could come to my home and take my babies. I wanted to throw up.
Police officer and parent Darren Laur teaches parents and kids how to protect children from abduction and other forms of violence and abuse. His company, Personal Protection Systems, provides workshops for families.
After this happened, I emailed him for advice. He immediately sent an e-copy of his book, Enlighten Not Frighten, and some tips.
Laur tells parents teaching children "stranger danger" makes them less safe.
"Parents need to understand that no matter how many times they tell their child not to talk to strangers, they are going to do so anyway in their dayto-day activities," Laur writes. "A child who can actually approach a stranger in public is less likely to be a victim than a child who is taught to never talk to strangers."
New York City mom Lenore Skenazy has been leading the fight against stranger danger since she allowed her nine-year-old son to take the subway by himself a few years ago. Her blog and book are called Free Range Kids and she argues that with crime rates at an all-time low, there is no reason to teach our children to be terrified of strangers.
"Our kids do not need a security detail every time they leave the house," she writes on her blog. "Our kids are safer than we think, and more competent, too."
Laur says teaching a child to question a situation, and giving them the tools to say no and to get to safety, is the way to go.
"Children should be taught that they have the right to say no to anyone - if that person does something, or asks them to do something, that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe," he writes. "Children should be taught - [to] check the credentials of a person in authority first, prior to that child going anywhere with that person."
He says a good way to check a police officer's credentials is to look for a full uniform, badge, utility belt with working radio (the "Batman" belt), and real, holstered firearm.
Blogger Skenazy writes about "worst-first" thinking - the idea that parents should not allow children to do normal things, such as walk to school, because of the almost impossibly rare chance "something bad" will happen. I have to admit, I jumped to the worst-first scenario after all this. I freaked. But it's two weeks on and my kids are all here. Even so, some safety training seems in order.
Laur encourages parents to use "what if" scenarios on a regular basis: What if a man told me he was a police officer and I needed to go with him? What if a woman said she was mom's friend and mom was at the hospital, and to come with her?
But he says using a code word - a word that shows the adult has been sent by mom or dad and is safe - is a bad idea.
"Children cannot keep secrets, and a good predator knows how to trick the child to get the 'secret' code word," Laur writes. "Teach your child not go anywhere with someone whom he or she does not know, unless they are in trouble and need help."
We're working on making the kids more aware, and a little less forthcoming.
DARREN LAUR'S TIPS FOR PARENTS
- Teach "situational danger," not stranger danger.
Warning of stranger danger doesn't work very well because children find it hard to understand the profile of a stranger. It is much easier for them to comprehend dangerous situations.
- Teach children to never go anywhere with someone they don't know, unless they're in trouble and need help.
Sometimes, in times of need or emergency, a stranger is a child's only safety blanket. If they have been taught to fear all people they don't know, the consequences could be dire.
- Teach "body sovereignty." Although the risk of abduction is real in Canada, it is also a rarity. Most sexual exploitation or abuse of children is committed by those the child and family know, love or trust, not strangers.
- Foster a child's intuitive sense. Teach children to trust their inner voice or intuition about what is right or safe.
Teach that when their "Spidey sense" is tingling, they should take action to seek help and not be embarrassed.
- Allow children to be children. But make sure there is appropriate adult supervision, combined with enlightening but not frightening safety instructions.
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