Beware of strangers (and friends)

Prepare older children so they know what to do if they get lost or feel threatened


Paige Fumo Fox


This article is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1, with advice for younger kids, by clicking the link at the bottom of this article.

As children grow from toddlers to youngsters, the opportunities to get separated from their parents, teachers or other adults seem to multiply. Splitting off from classmates on a field trip, boarding the wrong bus home from school, wandering away from parents at the museum-there are plenty of chances.

Simply put, it's dangerous out there. But just where is the danger coming from? And what can parents do to teach their children how to be safe-especially if they get lost?

These days, officials say, it isn't always a stranger that equals danger. It can come from those people who have put themselves in positions where they will be accessible to children.

You do not want to infuse your children with fear. But you do want them to be prepared and to help them-and you-avoid a problem.

Experts say kids should remember one thing-keep checking. Kids should understand before they go anywhere or do anything with anyone, they need to check with a trusted adult-the one who is taking care of them, be it Mom, Dad, a caregiver or a relative.

"Children need to be able to say no to an adult and to get away from an adult," says Marcia Schild, a crime prevention specialist with the Naperville Police Department. "It is really about empowering children."

For children just starting school, it's important to reinforce messages about personal safety, from obeying traffic signs and escaping a house fire to making sure the child knows what to do if he gets lost or is approached by a potential predator.

In the summer, kids may be even more vulnerable.

"We've seen some spikes [in abductions] in warmer months, and I think, pretty logically, it's because kids are outside," says Nancy McBride, national safety director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Kids aren't in school, maybe there's less supervision."

On an outing

Child safety advocates recommend several measures to help keep everyone together or to ensure a child knows what to do if he or she becomes lost.

Be able to accurately describe your child. "What's really helpful is if [parents] know what the child is wearing from top to bottom," says Lisa Miner, spokeswoman for the Museum of Science and Industry. McBride suggests dressing kids in bright colors.

Make sure your child knows his or her name and phone number.

Teach kids how to help themselves. When you go to a museum, a zoo, even a mall, point out what employees look like. Agree on a meeting place in case you get separated. Show kids where the cashiers are. These adults can call for help. "We can't tell kids never talk to strangers," says McBride, because sometimes a child might need help from a stranger.

Teach kids to stay put. "[Children should] never, ever go to the parking lot to look for your car," McBride says. "Try to let your children know you're going to find them."

Encourage them to scream. Some children get very quiet when they're scared, so they need to know if someone tries to lead them away from where they are, they should scream. This means you must remember if you are somewhere and hear a child scream, you will step in. Remember, any child's safety is your business.

If your child disappears, notify the store manager immediately. If the child hasn't turned up within 10 minutes, call police.

In the neighborhood

Help children become familiar with their surroundings. Children who take a bus to and from school should know the number of their bus route. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests taking kids on a tour of their neighborhood so they are familiar with nearby landmarks.

Children should know never to get into a car with someone unless their parents or another trusted adult says it's OK. If a child is near school and someone-even someone the child knows-approaches in a car, teach the child to ask a teacher if it's all right to go with that person, says Schild.

Many police departments sponsor Officer Friendly or other types of safety programs for children beginning as early as preschool. Naperville has a Helping Hand program that asks residents and businesses to display signs advertising their buildings as safe places to seek help.

In addition, the state has sent materials from the Child Lures Prevention program to all public elementary schools in Illinois. The program talks about common "lures" or ways that a child predator will entice a child to go with him or her.

"What a lot of parents have to realize is they have to educate their children at a very young age," says Detective Dan Everett of the Chicago Police Department's special investigation unit.

Schild suggests framing possible scenarios so children relate better to them. For instance, a common lure is the "lost puppy," which a predator may go to a park and ask a child to help him find his (nonexistent) lost puppy as a way to lure the child away from the public's view.

"I ask them, 'Would you ever ask strangers to get in your car to help you?' " Schild says. Most children know the answer: "Adults should ask other adults for help."

At Union Ridge School in Harwood Heights, kindergarten teacher Diane Kubiniec has incorporated the Child Lures program into safety talks she has with her students.

She also relates her own experience. When she was in eighth grade, a man tried to get her into his car, and then chased her almost all the way home. At the time, she told no one.

"That was a mistake. You have to tell," Kubiniec says, emphasizing that if it could happen to a teenager, it could happen to a little kid, too.

Schild adds that if a child runs from someone, he or she should stay out in view and not try to take shortcuts through bushes and backyards.

Kubiniec uses the analogy that sometimes the weather can change quickly, and sometimes it can be dangerous, like a tornado. "That can sometimes happen with people. They may look nice, but they may not always be nice," she says. 

Statistically, the "prime-risk age" for victims of predators is 10 to 12 years old, but prevention should start early-so 5 is a good age to begin talking about the risks, says Ken Wooden, founder of Child Lures Prevention.

Children can understand there are rules they must follow at home and in school. They can also understand there are laws adults must follow.

Children can recognize the difference between "real love" and "fake love," Wooden says. Therefore, they can recognize if they are being touched inappropriately or being asked to do something sexually to another person. "Real love" is a big hug from Grandpa. Fake love is being touched in the "bathing suit zone."

For kindergarteners or first-graders, it's a good idea to help them understand their private parts and that the "bathing suit zone" is theirs and for no one to see except during doctor visits when the parent is present or when a parent or guardian is giving a bath.

It's crucial that children learn to recognize the signals their own bodies send out that let them know they're in a bad situation. If they get butterflies in their tummies or they otherwise feel nervous, that is a warning sign.

"Children have a siren in their belly. If people try to make them do something that feels funny in your stomach, that's a siren. It's a gift from your ancestors," Wooden says.

Sexual abuse is more often perpetrated by someone the victim knows than by a complete stranger. Because of this, parents should be alert, too, and be suspicious of adults-coaches, neighbors and club leaders-who seem to take too enthusiastic of an interest in your child.

"The likelihood that someone is going to be cruising the neighborhood and pulling kids into cars is slim," says Nancy McBride, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Detective Dan Everett, of the Chicago Police Department, agrees. "A very, very small percentage [of abductions] is the stranger going to a 3- or 4-year-old and grabbing the child. I'm not saying that doesn't happen. It does," says Everett.

There is reason to be careful, but most child experts say not to terrify your child.

"If people take preventative measures and you don't scare your child to death, and you do it at a very early age, they accept it," says Marcia Schild, of the Naperville Police Department.

Paige Fumo Fox is the mom of Jeremy, 3½, and Eli, 15 months and a writer living in Westchester. 


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