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 went along.
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, too.
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.