Friday, July 19, 2002

Katherine Seligman, Chronicle Staff Writer


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Statewide manhunt for girl's killer
TIPS FOR PARENTS: Keeping kids safe without passing on adult fears
Katherine Seligman, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, July 19, 2002
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A stranger pulls up in a car, asks a little girl for help and the rest is part of a gruesome tragedy that is being beamed into millions of living rooms across America.


The kidnap and slaying of Samantha Runnion in Southern California have left parents across the nation wondering what they can do not only to protect their children, but whether they should even tell their kids about it.


"We feel so powerless," said Lee Ann Slaton, education coordinator at Parents Place, a nonprofit San Francisco organization that teaches parenting. "Your main job as a parent is to protect your child. If you can't do that, what can you do? It feels like it's a scary world out there."


Child safety experts said Thursday that parents should realize that "stranger abductions" are extremely rare. FBI statistics show most kidnappings are committed by relatives or acquaintances. But when a stranger kidnapping does happen, it raises, once again, the question of how to keep kids safe.
Young children can and should be taught personal safety, experts say, but there is a fine line between preparing children for possible danger and passing along adult anxieties to them. Child safety experts advocate teaching children basic skills on dealing with unexpected situations -- everything from talking to strangers to getting lost at the mall.


"If you're in danger, it's not necessary to be polite," said Jan Wagner, author of "Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World" and founder of Yello Dyno, a child safety education program that uses songs to teach safety to schoolchildren. "They have to be able to speak up to an adult."
Constant news reports of the abduction and killing of Samantha make parents feel like the crime happened in their neighborhood, said Slaton.


Dr. Susan Smiga, child psychiatrist at the Children's Center at UC San Francisco's Langley Porter Institute, recommends that parents don't let young children watch news accounts of the slaying. Her advice: Turn off the television but be available to talk to children who have questions about the tragedy.
Smiga said parents should look for symptoms of nervousness or clinginess. They might use the kidnapping to talk to children about what they can do to prevent bad things from happening, she said. ROLE-PLAYING EXERCISES


Experts say children should be taught personal safety the way they are taught about car and fire safety. The instruction should begin as young as 4 years old and be reinforced with role-playing exercises, they say.
To teach kids about unwanted touching, for example, parents should practice tickling or pinching a cheek, then have the child respond, said Donna Chaiet, author of "The Safe Zone: A Kid's Guide to Personal Safety."
"A parent can teach a child to look them in the eye and say, with a calm voice and vertical spine, 'I don't like it when you touch me,' " said Chaiet.
Teaching tangible practical skills gives children confidence, she said. The more experience kids have dealing with specific situations, the more likely they are to react safely.
Calls to the self-defense program Kid Power, Teen Power, Full Power International in Berkeley have doubled since Samantha's kidnapping, said coordinator Erika Leonard. The organization teaches self-defense to children as young as 6.


"A way to deal with fear is to increase skill," she said. "If you're really worried about getting out of the house in case of fire, the way out of fear is to practice it." BASIC RULES
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says there are basic rules of safety, including teaching kids which adults are safe to talk to or ask for help, which homes in the neighborhood they can visit, not dropping them off alone at malls and theaters and asking them, whenever possible, to go outside with a buddy.


The center stresses in its guidelines that kids shouldn't talk to strangers who ask for help. But Gavin de Becker, a consultant and author of the book "Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)," writes, "after a certain age, your child actually needs the skill of talking to strangers.
"The issue isn't strangers," de Becker says in his book. "It is strangeness. "
Kids should be taught, instead, to recognize inappropriate behavior such as a stare that is held too long, a smile that curls too slowly, or the way someone either looks you in the eye or avoids eye contact, the book says.


E-mail Katherine Seligman kseligman@sfchronicle.com.