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Reality Check: Too Much Preparation?

Q. When our 4-year-old plays with her dolls, she pretends the parent is hurt and the child has to get help, or that a stranger's in the backyard. Have we done too much to prepare her for emergencies?

It sounds like normal post-emergency-preparation behavior to me, and also to Lieutenant Fernando Juarez, coordinator of community affairs for the San Francisco Fire Department. His job is to tell children what to do in the case of emergencies without scaring them, and he's noticed that they often like to replay scenarios they've just learned about. "When I talk to preschoolers about fire, they love to practice 'stop, drop, and roll' and press the button to make the smoke alarm go off," says Juarez. "A child acting out emergency situations with her dolls is just rehearsing so that she'll know what to do in a real emergency. It makes a kid feel less scared, not more."

That's reassuring. But the problem with teaching your daughter these things is that it's hard not to wince when you see her acting out those life-or-death moments at the tender and supposedly innocent age of 4.

Take care how you draw back the curtain on the scary parts of the world. Even though you've already shown your child what to do in an emergency, you're bound to have follow-up discussions. Be careful of giving too much information. No need, for example, to say "Warn me if there's a stranger around because I don't want you to be kidnapped." Just keep it simple and straightforward, and tailor your explanations to her mood, temperament, and ability to handle that kind of potentially scary warning.

So applaud your daughter's emergency dress rehearsals ("Wow, honey, you really remember everything we talked about!"). You're doing the right thing -- knowledge is power, and trying to protect your child by keeping her ignorant isn't really protecting her at all.