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
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
"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
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
"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
E-mail Katherine Seligman email@example.com.