As soon as your kids walk, they can walk into trouble. Even if your home and backyard are virtually childproof, the outside world has unpredictable dangers: being hit by a car, falling off a bicycle, getting lost at the mall, being touched inappropriately by a stranger — or a trusted adult.
So teach your child not only colors and sizes but also the ABC’s of street smarts — how to stay safe while remaining confident, not fearful. “There’s a fine line between teaching kids to be cautious and making them afraid,” says Peggy Shecket, a private consultant and parenting educator in Columbus, OH.
Tailor the information to your child’s age and personality, keep it light, and repeat it often — giving increasingly sophisticated answers as he gets older. There’s no need to warn about every danger. What’s more important is to instill core concepts and behaviors for each age. Since kids learn best by doing, the suggested games can be fun, effective ways to get your message across.
Katy Koontz lives in Tennessee and writes regularly about parenting topics. She is the mother of a 7-year-old girl.
Ages 1 to 2: Stop when I say stop!
Whether your walking wonder is about to run into the street, pick up a pretty piece of broken glass, or pet a strange dog, she’ll be safer if she knows to stop cold when you say “Stop!”
“Children this age need constant supervision,” says Gery LeGagnoux, Ph.D., a child psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But you can teach them to react automatically most of the time — they don’t need to understand why.”
In a real-life situation, if your child won’t stop, LeGagnoux suggests holding her forearm and saying, “If you can’t stop, I’ll need to hold on to you. When you can stop, I can let go.” This often works, he says, because “kids really want their freedom.”
“Be sure of the difference between blaming and conveying information,” suggests Jay Lebow, Ph.D., senior therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL. If you’re frightened by what almost just happened — and respond angrily — your child may simply tune you out. “It’s fine for her to see you get scared,” he says. “But deliver the message again when things are calmer.”
Game: red light/green light For kids this age, walking is still a fairly new skill, so walking and then stopping suddenly is their idea of big fun. It also teaches listening skills. Play it with a twist, though: Don’t say “green light” or “red light.” Instead, say the actual words you would use if your child were about to step, say, into the path of a speeding bicyclist: “Stop!” and “Go!”
Ages 3 to 4: Private parts are private
Children now have a growing sense of bodily control: They’re potty trained, curious about their own bodies, and increasingly aware of the anatomical differences between boys and girls. At this age, a key lesson is that of body privacy: No one, not even a person they know, has the right to touch them inappropriately.
“Start by teaching real names for body parts, not ‘wee wee,’ for example,” says Gloria Kirkland Holmes, Ph.D., an associate professor of early-childhood education at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls. “Explain that anywhere their bathing suit covers them is private and that you shouldn’t touch other people or let them touch you in private places.” (If your son wears a knee-length bathing suit, make the rule for underwear.)
Explain that a caretaker or preschool teacher can help them on the potty. Doctors and nurses may need to examine their private parts, of course, but let your children know that you’ll always be with them when this happens.
“Be matter-of-fact about it,” says LeGagnoux. “Don’t make it seem highly exciting or forbidden.” Body privacy is part of a broader context of teaching your child to treat his body with respect, right down to eating healthy foods, he says. Teach your children to tell you whenever anybody touches them in a private place, especially if it’s supposed to be “a secret.”
Game: naming names Use an anatomically correct doll to identify body parts and call them by their right names, as well as to discuss keeping private parts private, suggests Kirkland Holmes. Try a bath version: While washing your child’s privates, use correct body-part names (“I’m now washing your penis”), then have him wash his doll the same way. This will help him become comfortable using real private-part names.
Ages 5 to 6: Be wary of strangers
While abduction by a total stranger is actually very rare, near strangers can still hurt or scare a child. So kids need to learn that not all adults can be trusted. One lesson to teach your child is to trust her own comfort level — and to rehearse what to do if her gut tells her something’s wrong.
The tricky part is explaining that someone who seems nice may not actually be nice. Since children are so literal, you’ll also need to explain that it’s okay to go to certain “strangers” for help, such as policemen, security guards, firefighters, or store cashiers. Also give them a code word to ask for if someone else comes to pick them up from school in an emergency, says Kirkland Holmes. Make it easy to remember — a favorite fictional character or the name of a pet hamster.
Remind your child that even people she knows can do something that makes her uneasy — and that she should trust her instincts and tell you if that happens. The last tip is for parents: Don’t put children’s names in plain sight on backpacks or clothing, since observant strangers calling them by name could seem more trustworthy. Even with the best training, children this age should always be supervised.
Game: Puppet role-play Use finger or hand puppets to rehearse what your child would do in an uncomfortable situation. “Teach her to yell what’s wrong,” suggests Shecket. “‘This isn’t my Mommy! Help!’ is much more effective than just ‘Help!'”
Game: Supermarket quiz While you’re shopping, ask, ‘If we got separated right now, what would you do?'” Then point out safe people, such as those wearing name tags or store vests.
Ages 7 to 8: Stay in the zone
By this age, kids are often out on their own in the neighborhood for the first time. Be sure your child is clear that he needs to pay attention to his environment, whether he is crossing the street or choosing a place to play. A false sense of competence can get someone into trouble. “Your child should know basic rules, like watching for cars and wearing a bike helmet,” says LeGagnoux. “Teach specifics too, such as staying away from the construction site down the street.”
A good strategy is to have a safety zone from which your child knows not to stray. “If he does, you might take away a privilege, like being able to ride his bike,” says LeGagnoux.
Insist that your child tell you where he’s going and that he call you if he later goes somewhere else. Then, says Lebow, “he should know to call just to say he’s arrived and again when he’s leaving.” One fun approach is to give your child a two-way radio and ask him to use it frequently.
Game: Teach the little kid “Have your child pretend you’re younger than she is, then ask her to teach you how to cross the street,” suggests LeGagnoux. “Work with her until you feel sure she understands the rules.”
As your kids get older, there will be more lessons: saying no to friends who are doing risky things (even on a dare), staying away from tobacco and alcohol. Eventually, you’ll help them navigate the infinitely tricky world of adolescence. But that’s years away.
Right now, you can lay a valuable foundation — teaching your children to heed warnings, respect body privacy, be cautious around strangers, and explore the world within limits. Then, as they walk into that world, they’ll have the tools to take care of themselves.