I’ll admit it. I have a thing for stories about girls and women who’ve been held against their will for long periods of time. What goes hand-in-hand with that is keeping children safe and teaching them discernment and making sure that they know the rules for safety. It is a natural thing that goes with my day job as an assistant principal and also with being a mother for nearly 27 years now. It doesn’t all come naturally, either, but rather something we learn as we go and, tragically speaking, something we learn when we hear the horrific stories of violence against women. Keeping children safe from all sorts of dangers isn’t an afterthought for me: it’s front and center for the work I do daily.
The story of the three girls (now women) held against their will in Cleveland, Ohio this week has gripped me. Not because of the morbid curiosity of their lives. For that, I’m referring to Emma Donoghue’s wonderfully written book Room, in which the story is told from the 5 year old captive son of the woman who has been held against her will for many years.
My job and my role as a mother remind me to let children know about keeping themselves safe. It’s about survival and the things we tell children. Sometimes, it’s about the things we fail to tell them.
Here are the top 5 that keep coming to me about keeping children safe. I think it’s a good reminder no matter where we are with our parenting and, depending on the age of your children, can be helpful in discussing ways to be safe. These conversations don’t have to happen only when we learn of tragic stories. In fact, it’s best to have these discussions when your child is ripe for listening and when they do feel safe.
Know Your Community
Get out in your neighborhood, meet your neighbors, pay attention. These all seem like they should be a part of what we do when we buy or rent homes, but as we’re getting more disconnected from one another in person, it’s a good reminder that we can learn about odd behaviors and things that seem out of the ordinary. One of the interviews I saw on television had a family member of one of the kidnapped girls and he said to walk your dog in the early mornings so the children of your community see you and have a sense of safety. It’s actually smart to go out in the rain and snow, too, because those are vulnerable times for young people walking alone. They’d love to get in a car and dry off or get warm and predators know this.
Adults Never EVER Need Help From Children
When we hear the (nearly stereotypical) story of the man who offers children candy in exchange for helping him find his lost dog, it’s almost laughable. Yet, that’s exactly how predators lure children. A good rule to teach children that discernment is this: adults ask other adults for help. Not children. When a grown up asks a child to help them or save them from something, it should be suspect and met with a simple phrase from kids: “I’ll go get another adult to help you.” If they’re still there when the child and adult return, then they needed help. If not, then it was a scam and you just saved your life, kid.
Be Loud When You’re Scared
Depending on how children are raised, this is a tricky one but it works. We’ve all heard and nearly made a joke of “stranger danger”, but the truth is that when a child begins to scream and gets loud when confronted by a strange adult, other adults in the vicinity will respond. Sure, there’s the occasional temper tantrum that happens when our own children do this, but it’s better to take the judgmental stares of others over that as a parent than it is to have a child come up missing.
Use Code Words
Code words haven’t gone out of fashion and children need to have them memorized and ready. Even if they’re in the presence of a predator and already “caught”, it’s good to ask them some question that they can answer without alerting the terrorizing predator. If you have a latchkey kid who comes home to an empty house each day, call them and ask them to walk through the house while you’re on the phone with them. When you have a neighbor pick them up for you, make sure that trusted person knows the code word and offers it up right away so that your child doesn’t have to second guess their safety.
Trust Your Instincts
Too often, we brush off our “weird” feelings about situations in which we find ourselves or dark places where we are afraid. But, the truth is that we have an innate kind of animal instinct for a reason. Once, in college, I got stranded on the road when my car ran out of gas. There were two houses and only one had on a front porch light. Something told me to go to the other one because I could see lights on inside. When I listened to my instincts I learned that was smart of me because the kind people who helped me said that there was an ex-convict who lived at the other house. They suspected that he kept his lights on just to trick people and I was grateful that I listened to myself. When something feels wrong it’s better to be safe. Go with what feels SAFE.
I think that, especially for teenage girls, these rules still apply but I would add the following:
1. Come home with who you left with for a party/event/sports game. This is the best game plan for teen girls to be safe. Don’t leave with a stranger and always know where your friends are.
2. Stick together. Don’t leave your girlfriends unattended or in compromising situations even if they tell you to go. Stick around and call for help from other friends or adults when necessary.
3. Leave when things get out of control. While they have no way to control the drinking and drug culture in which they’re entrenched, I think this is smart for anyone. Teenage girls often want to stick around so they don’t miss anything, but it’s better to leave when their safety is compromised.
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