Though Kathy Keller of New York City urged her 11-year-old son, Jonathan, to wear safety gear while rollerblading, "Encouraging was as far as I went," she admits. "I was just glad he got out of the house instead of playing video games inside."
Unfortunately, the Kellers learned their safety lesson the hard way: During a game of rollerblading hockey, Jonathan fell, breaking both bones in his forearm, which led to surgery, a hospital stay, and eight weeks in a cast.
As kids get older, spend more time away from your watchful eyes, and participate in riskier behaviors, guarding them becomes harder, points out Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., a psychologist in Austin, TX. That's why it's crucial to raise children who think about the consequences of their choices before acting on them. "Too often, kids are caught up in the present," Pickhardt explains. "Parents must also emphasize this thing called later."
Tune in to these seven key safety areas.
Stay Home Smartly
There's no magical formula or legal age to determine when you can leave your kid home unattended. But most every state has its own version of a "failure to protect" law, which says that parents are responsible if a child in their care is put at risk. If something happens, there is an ad hoc determination of the parents' negligence and culpability depending on the case.
So build independence gradually as your child matures. Rehearse how she'll handle phone calls, knocks at the door, and fire or other emergencies.
Have an answering machine? Then your child need never answer the phone when she's alone. Let the machine pick up. She can respond only if it's you, her friend, or another safe voice on the line. Tell her that it's always okay to hang up on a problem caller.
A similar rule applies to answering the door. If your child asks "Who's there?" she becomes engaged in coversation with the visitor, warns Ric Bentz, a veteran detective with the Kenosha, WI, police department and author of Street Smarts for Kids (Ballantine). When home alone, she should ignore the doorbell (looking through the peephole or window if expecting someone) and stay near the phone. Usually, the stranger will leave. If not, your child should dial 911 and tell the operator. Police much prefer to check on a safe child than to come later when he or she is missing or has been molested, says Bentz.
Maintain working smoke detectors on every floor of your home. If an alarm goes off, your kid should react as if she saw flames: Call 911; get out of the building pronto.
"Don't talk to strangers!" That was the simple warning our parents gave us. "But we now know that at least 85 percent of all child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows," says Bentz. "Molesters try to establish a relationship with a kid first." For example, a neighbor or camp counselor may not be a stranger in a child's eyes. Better advice? Teach your youngster to be wary of anyone who acts strangely or makes her feel uneasy—whether it's someone she knows or not, says Bentz.
Contrary to popular belief, very few sex offenders "snatch" children, says Sheryll Kraizer, Ph.D., author of the Safe Child Program, an elementary-school curriculum. Instead, predators lure kids—with requests for help, offers of fun, authoritative badges or uniforms, claims of family emergencies, demonstrations of affection, or appeals to a child's sense of guilt and trust ("Don't you like me? Don't you trust me?").
Role-play scenarios. Then drill these rules: When an adult she doesn't know approaches, pay attention, stay at arm's length, and don't talk to him or her. "The minute a child engages in conversation with a stranger, she forgets the rules," Kraizer explains. Forbid your kid to go anywhere with anyone unless you've told her it's okay. In a schedule bind? Tell your child who will pick her up.
If the predator is a relative or family friend, your youngster's ability to protect herself will hinge on her sense of control over her body. So never discourage her from speaking up about feelings—whether the unwanted contact is a neighbor grilling her about a personal matter or Uncle Jim's big bear hugs. "Assertiveness will empower her," says Pickhardt. "She won't be afraid to say, 'Stop. I don't like that. I'm going to tell.'"
At about age 8 or 9, your child may want more freedom—to ride a bike around the block and cross the street solo. Keep in mind that auditory, visual, spatial, and perceptive skills—all needed for navigating traffic—are usually not fully developed until at least age 10, says Laura Fitzmaurice, M.D., section chief of emergency medicine at Mercy Children's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Evaluate your child's psychological maturity: Does he consistently follow rules? Can he concentrate under pressure? Your decision will also depend on the safety of your community, so consult neighborhood parents. But allow only those freedoms you're comfortable with.
Before crossing a street on a green light, your child should look left, then right, then left again. He should continue looking in both directions until reaching the other side. Forbid entering the street from between parked cars or from behind a tree. Avoid streets with heavy traffic or tricky intersections. Go over the route he's always to follow. Ask him to repeat this information back to you. It's helpful to put it in writing, too. If your child's not home on time, you (and the police) will know where to look.
Insist on his wearing a helmet for bike riding; a helmet and elbow, wrist, and knee guards for rollerblading. Enlist a mentor—a teen your child admires who bikes or blades in safety gear, suggests Dr. Fitzmaurice, whose 5-year-old loves to watch his older cousins do bike tricks in their helmets. Riding after dark is extremely dangerous.
In the car, use seat belts or safety seats. If your youngster balks at strapping in, firmly tell her, "This car doesn't move until you're buckled up." Kids learn by example, so always wear your seat belt, too.
School bus safety means staying seated until the bus completely stops, watching for cars when entering and exiting, and never crossing in front of or behind the bus.
Click on Net Safety
Make sure your youngster understands that when you monitor his use of the Internet—by noticing what's onscreen and checking his browser history file—the issue is safety, not trust. Even if he never looks for trouble, trouble can seek him out: It's not unusual for porn and hate sites to pop up even during an innocuous Web search.
But the black hole that can move danger from the virtual realm into reality is online chat. Pedophiles know that a chat room devoted to, say, Backstreet Boys fans will be frequented by children. Sophisticated offenders can find out where your child's messages are originating (even if your kid doesn't offer the info), then do a little digging to forge a relationship. A predator's goal is always to set up a face-to-face meeting. Should you forbid open chat rooms? Yes, advocates Donna Rice Hughes, author of Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace (Baker Book House). "Think about it: A stranger can come into the privacy of your home, interact with your child, and build a relationship with him," she explains. Of course, kids can safely conduct online conversations with real pals (such as through America Online's instant messaging) and are fairly safe in monitored chat rooms at kids' portals. But be aware that anyone can pose as a kid.
Put technological tools in place to keep your child's experience safe. Hughes recommends server-based filters over desktop solutions, because you don't need to update them and they're harder for tech-savvy kids to outsmart. (Check out FamilyClick.com not only dogs but also wild animals such as raccoons, skunks and even bats, which can carry rabies.