Experts offer ways to discuss
the risks with children
and help keep them safe
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff, 8/7/2002
Keeping our children
safe depends primarily on a combination of two things: vigilant parenting
and child empowerment. Unfortunately, the older children are, the less
vigilant parents tend to be, because teenagers are so good at pushing
us away. The younger children are, the less likely we are to tell them
what they need to know, because we're afraid of frightening them.
So far this year, the number of children abducted by people outside their
families is lower than it was at this point last year, but this summer's
high-profile cases are unsettling for another reason: The children who
were abducted were doing normal, everyday things: playing in the front
yard, walking on the sidewalk with a friend, sleeping in their own bedrooms,
parking at a lover's lane.
Even the experts are on edge.
''This does give you pause,'' says William Damon, director of the Stanford
Center of Adolescence. Like many others, his advice to parents is more
precautionary than it was a few years ago. ''Would this make me so neurotic
that I wouldn't let my teenage daughter go to the mall? No, I'd let her
go. But I'd have a conversation first: `You can only go with a group of
friends, and you have to promise not to get separated.'''
Teens need the most help, because teenage girls are the highest-risk group
for stranger abduction, says David Finkelhor, co-director of the Family
Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and one of the
nation's leading researchers on crimes against children.
Parents of teens should always know where children are going, who they
are with, and when they'll be home, even when they insist on independence.
''A lot of that is bravado,'' says Damon. ''What you say does sink in.''
He speculates that news of last week's abduction of two teenage girls
from a California lover's lane could dent even the thickest teen shell
of invulnerability, though your teen may never admit it. Bring up the
subject if your daughter doesn't, he says: ''These things are rare, but
they happen. I don't want you to stop living, but I want to make sure
you don't expose yourself to unnecessary risk. One of those risks is going
to some secluded spot with your boyfriend.''
With younger children, vigilance takes persistence of a different kind.
''Most parents are not vigilant enough about paying attention to the people
around your children ... the acquaintances [in the neighborhood],'' says
Jan Wagner, author of ''Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World'' (Avon)
and founder of the Yellow Dyno safety program and curricula (www.yellowdyno.com).
She says children under the age of 6 should never be alone outside and
never be more than 21 feet away from a supervising adult: ''You can't
get to them fast enough in a crisis.''
Beginning at age 4, ''Teach children not to talk to people they don't
know. Period,'' says Nancy McBride, director of prevention education with
the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (www.missingkids.com;
click on ''Education & Resources'' for safety strategies).
McBride opts for this simple rule: ''If a person approaches you in a car
and it's a person you don't know, run.'' Even teens are capable of being
tricked, she says, citing one study in which teenagers were approached
by a man unknown to them who said, ''I'm casting for a TV show and you
look perfect! I have a camera in my car.'' Every teen who was approached
Won't all this scare children?
McBride says presentation makes the difference between empowering a child
and frightening one: ''You don't tell your 7-year-old to run from a person
she doesn't know because a girl was snatched from her bedroom this summer.
You tell her, `These are the rules for staying safe.'''
She adds, ''It's not as if children don't hear the news.''
Indeed, if a child brings up the subject of the abductions, McBride would
say, ''`Yes, bad things happen to kids sometimes. There are things we
can do to teach you to be safe.''' If a child won't go to bed at night
until windows are locked, offer thanks for reminding you, and ask him
or her to help you check them. If you notice increased fearfulness and
changes in behavior patterns, consult a mental health professional.
Because children school-age and younger are easily confused about the
concept of strangers (''They think of a stranger as ugly and nasty, never
as charming and pleasant,'' says Wagner) and because more abductions occur
at the hands of adults who are acquainted with children, it's best to
teach about ''tricky'' people and tricky situations: ''What would you
do if someone you don't know asked you for help to find a lost puppy?''
The correct answer: ''Run fast and yell and find an adult I trust.'' McBride
says 6-year-olds should know that adults don't ask kids for directions
- they ask other adults - and she would remind a 14-year-old about that,
A school-age child who is approached and/or frightened will typically
freeze, be quiet, or cry but won't use his or her voice. The child needs
to know it's OK to yell, ''This man is not my father! Help!'' Ten- to
14-year-olds typically will neither run nor yell because they don't like
to draw attention to themselves. Wagner says age-appropriate rules for
such children include: ''Call home if your plans change. Don't be afraid
to say no to or run away from any situation or person that makes you uncomfortable.''
McBride says some children feel conflicted about running from an adult
or shouting because they've been taught to be polite to adults. Indeed,
parents may feel conflicted teaching it. ''Here's what I have to say about
that,'' says McBride, who has been working for 20 years on children's
safety: ''When it comes to adults your child doesn't know, or situations
that feel uncomfortable to them, safety is more important than being polite.''
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 8/7/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.