Back to school. That phrase brings up a lot of different emotions for everyone – excitement, nervousness, apprehension, perhaps fear….and as parents we help our children deal with all of these emotions by arming them with information and preparing them for what’s ahead. But one thing we seem to forget about these days, in the age of teaching our children safety when using technology and social media, we forget about the REAL dangers that are still around us. We sometimes forget that we need them to be safe in the ‘real’ world and sometimes we forget to teach them about the basics that we used to learn.
Back to school means that we have to rely on others to help keep our children safe and not just ourselves and our trusted family members. It means that they might be on their own for a little bit more than they have been and it means that we need to make sure they know how to keep themselves safe in all kinds of situations. Here are a few things we have armed our children with as school is about to begin a new year (some of our children are new to the routine while others are wearing it like an old hat).
1. Have a “safe word“. Sit down with your child/children and come up with a ‘safe word’. Use one word for the entire family to avoid any confusion. Let your child now that NO ONE else is to know this word except them and you (both parents and their siblings). If ANYONE comes up to them at school or anywhere else and says “Your mom/dad asked me to come pick you up for them” teach them to ask for the safe word. If the person does not know the safe word, teach them to run for help and yell as loud as they can. Let them know that if you really did send someone for them, you would have told them the safe word and they would be able to say it to your child. Once the safe word is given your child would know that mom/dad or a sibling has sent this person and it is safe for them to go with them. You should also discuss together that if you ever do use the safe word for someone that you will all have a family meeting and come up with a new word. Once someone outside of the children & parents knows the word, it needs to be changed.
It is also important to note that strangers will lie, threaten or even yell to try to intimidate a child into submission and that it is okay for them to scream, yell and run to a safe place such as back in school yelling the entire way. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
When my son was 4 we were in the mall. He had dropped his hat and a man came up and touched his shoulder to get his attention and return it. My son who was walking just a bit behind me let out a blood curdling scream ‘STRANGERRR”. The man froze and I swear every single adult in the store came running. Clerks came from stores in an instant. We were surrounded in less than 35 seconds. Needless to say the man was shocked but once he regained his composure he congratulated my son. Of course he still would not talk to him because regardless he was a stranger. The man should have approached me not my 4 year old son and I am pretty sure he will never make that mistake again.
2. Stranger Danger. Basic. Simple. And often forgotten. Teach your child to NEVER go with someone they do not know. Don’t help look for a lost puppy, don’t go over to someone offering them a treat, don’t get close to a vehicle that has someone inside asking for directions, etc. Make sure they know that a ‘stranger’ isn’t just some scary looking man….it’s ANYONE they do not know. It’s teenagers, adults, men, women and yes, even kids! We don’t want our children to have an insane fear of anyone they don’t know, but we need them to be aware that strangers who want to harm them do not look any different then their parents, family and friends. We need them to be aware that they are not going to be able to look at someone and automatically know that they are a ‘bad stranger’.
In our home we played the “What would you do? game”.
What would you do if a man with a puppy came up to you and asked if you wanted to pet the puppy?
A woman offered you some candy or food?
A boy or girl came up and said they lost their puppy and asked you to help them find it?
A mommy and her son came up to you and asked if you wanted to go to their house to play?
A person dressed like a police officer came up to you and said mommy/daddy asked me to come get you they were in an accident?
A teenager offered you a really cool toy and said they have lots more at their house and do you want to go look?
We listened to his answers and at the end offered some suggestions. We didn’t want to interrupt or make corrections until the end so that way he would give us his honest answer and not what he thought we wanted to hear. It was quite eye opening to hear his responses and to see the areas that needed to be worked on. For us it was the children and the lost puppy, the mommy and child asking to go play and the teen with the really cool toys.
Once you have your responses offer them advice and then practice them! Act out the things you talk about. If they practice it they’ll be more likely to remember it if the moment ever really arises. Keep this practice up and mix things up just to make sure it stays fresh and eventually it will be second nature.
LET THEM KNOW that if someone does something that they don’t like it’s NOT OKAY! Even if it’s a person they know. If someone does something to hurt them, touches them in any way or does something to them and then tells them not to tell anyone because it’s a “Secret“, that’s NOT okay. Let them know that they are to tell you about it. If the person tells them that their Mommy or Daddy will be hurt if they tell, make sure they know that it’s not true. They need to tell you about anything that happens like that. There are no secrets.
3. School bus stops. Is your child new to taking a school bus? Maybe they are not familiar to the area their stop is in? Take a picture of what their bus stop looks like beforehand and put it in their pocket or backpack so they can take it out and look at it on the bus. This will help to ensure that they do not get off at the wrong bus stop. Let them know if they aren’t sure they are to show the picture to the bus driver and get the driver to confirm that they are at the right stop before getting off. Also teach your child the street names of where they are to get off of their bus at. If they are not able to read yet then make sure they remember the names (or write them on the back of their picture!) and tell them they can ask the driver if they are at the right names before they get off.
4. School Walkers. If your child is a walker and you want to give them their (perhaps new) independence with walking to school on their own, get a walking group together. Meet with other parents in the area and have a few children meet up and walk to and from school together each day. Safety in numbers!
5. Know their Info. Make sure your little ones know their address, phone number and teach them about 911 if you haven’t yet. It seems obvious but also make sure they know their name (First AND last – you’d be surprised at how many 4 year old’s do not know their last name yet). They also need to know mom and dad’s names. If your child has an agenda put emergency info on the first or very last page. Contact information, emergency contacts that they might not know (ie. grandparent info), list any medical info (like allergies) and even health card info. We used a piece of white cardboard and wrote the info on front and back and slipped it in a hard plastic sleeve. We then put a small hole at the top attached a key ring and attached it to his backpack on the inside. You never know when something might happen and it’s not information that a little one is going to be able to relay.
Never write your child’s name on the outside of their backpacks, lunch bags or zipper pulls and labels should not be displayed on the outside. This just offers the opportunity for a stranger to call your child by name.
6. Playground Safety. Make sure you chat about the playground with your children. Let them know that if a ball goes over the fence and off the school grounds they are NEVER to go after it. They are to go find a supervisor/teacher and let them know and will be the ones who will get the ball back. We visited the school that our little guy would be going to in the summer. We played on the equipment and walked around the school yard. We talked about not being able to leave the school yard and we showed him the cut off points that he would not be able to go past.
7. Be Independent. Make sure your children know how to apply their sunscreen and the importance of using it and dressing for the weather. Teachers will most likely not be allowed to apply sunscreen for your child. Children also don’t often understand the implications of what could happen to them if they don’t dress for the weather. Make sure you let them know why they need to wear all of the warm gear in the winter (ie. frostbite). It can be a fight to get them to wear mitts or hats when they leave home – you want to be confident that they know WHY they have to wear them so they will put them on when they are out of your sight. You will also quickly learn why your mom used to attach the gloves with a piece of wool and run it through the arms of your coat. I swear there was a mitten monster at my school when I was growing up and it also had a taste for scarves and hats!
We certainly do not want to make our children paranoid to the point that the moment someone they don’t know looks at them funny they run off screaming but we do want them to be confident and well armed with knowledge. I know I feel a whole lot better knowing that I have done my best to prepare my child for whatever situation arises.