Tips for keeping kids safe

Photo by Ben Wicks/Unsplash

Following several recent child abduction attempts in Bothell, I was asked to give parents some guidance for talking to their children about safety. I am a child safety expert with over 35 years of experience teaching these skills. I was the Crime Prevention Officer for the Lynnwood Police Department for 20 years, and am the author of three books on child safety, plus four books on other topics. I live with my husband in Edmonds, where I am a mother and a grandmother.

It’s a big job teaching our growing children all they need to know to help them stay safe in today’s world. As parents, grandparents, teachers and those who care about kids, this is our responsibility!  We assume the schools teach safety; some do, but many do not. We, ourselves, must teach children how to take care of themselves, because we won’t always be around to protect them.

Since the mid-1980s, I’ve taught safety to tens of thousands of children in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. I’ve taught parents, teachers, school administrators, medical personnel and even police officers how to teach safety without terrifying children. My goal is to inform youngsters in a matter-of-fact way that they will remember for years, without using fear tactics. I am pleased to report that some of the students I first taught are now parents themselves, and they still remember much of the information from my classes.

My first book, Safe and Sound: A Parents’ Guide to the Care of Children Home Alone, was published by McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1988. A completely revised and updated version, Safe and Sound: Children Home Alone, will soon be published. (You can still find used copies of the first book online.)

I worked with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray while writing my second book, Strangers Who Molest: Protecting Children From Sexual Predatorsand it was published in 1991 as part of Washington State’s landmark sexual predator legislation. Washington State was the first, but now all states have similar statutes that allow law enforcement to inform the community of the presence of sex offenders.

I assisted a number of law enforcement agencies in Washington and Oregon, usually following the abduction of a child or the release of a sex offender into the community. In 1994, I joined the Lynnwood Police Department as their crime prevention officer. I retired after 20 years, although I am still involved in writing about two award-winning programs I began at Lynnwood PD, and also about child safety.

The risk of child abduction

When parents anywhere in the United States are asked about their number-one fear for the safety of their young children, they almost always name abduction by a stranger. Fortunately, stranger abductions are rare. Most children grow up to be safe and sound, but we know the abduction of even one child is tragic, often fatal, and completely unacceptable. It’s a good world we live in, but there are a variety of threats. Because of that, we must teach children how to keep themselves safe, and present the information in ways that do not scare them.

Reassurance is important

It is important to reassure children that most of the people they encounter, (strangers), are good folks who would never hurt a child; however. you must also tell them that there are a few bad people around who do hurt kids. Then make sure your children understand that they cannot tell good strangers from bad by looking at them, from the way they’re dressed, the kind of car they drive, etc. (Young children believe bad strangers look mean and dangerous, are dirty and drive old cars. Some kids even think the bad guys wear black!)

Because kids can’t tell good from bad strangers, in a situation with someone they don’t know, they should back away, leave immediately, and tell a trusted adult what happened.  (Of course, if parents are with the child, it’s OK for the youngster to interact with a stranger.)

The value of role playing

Role playing with children is a great way to teach them about stranger safety in an effective, fun way that reaches all their senses, and sticks in their memory. Role playing also takes the fear out of a potential frightening subject. Remind your kids the information you are teaching them is “just in case,” and they will likely never encounter these situations, but you want them to know what to do, just in case.

The following role plays are based on actual incidents, and most happened in the Greater Seattle area. 

Man with a map:

The parent plays the part of a man in a suit and tie, driving a nice car, who pulls up to a child, opens a map and asks for help in finding a nearby, well-known location. Make sure your child does not help and leaves immediately. Sometimes children think it would be OK to stand back and give the man directions. Even that is not safe, because once kids are involved in the situation, they can often be lured closer. Tell them that adults should ask other adults for help, and not ask kids.

The litter of kittens:

The parent plays the part of a man with a box of kittens on the front seat of his truck. Pretend to pull over to show the kittens to two children walking home from school. Offer to let the kids hold the kittens. If the children walk away, sternly order them to come back, then tell them you have to drown these animals, unless the kids take them.

The real children in this situation initially said no and walked away, only to go back when the man ordered them to, and told them the kittens would be killed. The youngsters came home safely with the litter of kittens to absolutely astounded parents who thought they had taught their offspring never to talk to strangers, get in a stranger’s vehicle or take anything from a stranger. When you role play, make sure your child leaves quickly, knows he or she does not have to obey a stranger, and should not hang around to listen to the story.

A motorcycle down in the bushes:

Take the part of a man who tells a child he just saw a motorcycle down the hill in the bushes. Ask the child to come and look, because maybe someone is hurt.

Your parents sent me to pick you up:

Pretend to pull over to a child walking home from school. Tell the youngster his or her parents asked you to give them a ride home. Some parents have given children a code word to be used if they send a stranger to pick them up, but there is no need, plus this can even prove dangerous. If a child in my classes hesitates and asks for the code, I can usually lure them closer by saying I will whisper the secret code in their ear. In addition, I have met very, very few parents who ever sent someone unknown to the child to give them a ride.

Lost dog:

Your child is playing in a neighborhood park when a man, carrying an empty dog leash, runs up to the child and asks for help finding his lost dog, who got off the leash and ran towards a woodsy area of the park.

Teenager with newspapers:

Take the part of a teenage paperboy on his front porch. Ask the child to help you take a stack of papers down to his basement, and even offer to pay the child. (Later, when older children want to earn money by helping neighbors, parents need to make sure in advance that the situation is safe.)

At the bus stop:

The parent should take the part of a man in a van who slowly pulls up to a child standing apart from the other kids waiting for the school bus. Offer the child some flowers, saying that he or she could give them to a favorite teacher, or they would even last long enough to give to his or her mother after school. Hold out the bouquet. In this situation, the child should probably not leave the safety of others at the bus stop, but should certainly back away from the van, and look around for any adults who could help. Just the presence of one parent at a bus stop would prevent this, and many parents take turns being there with the group of children.

Many children carry cell phones, and should immediately call 911 to report this incident and summon police. Make sure kids know to call 911 first, not their parents.

Information about the van — such as license number, color, description and direction of travel — would be helpful to the 911 operator or law enforcement when they arrive. Details about the driver and any passenger, their clothing, approximate age, color of skin, hair, facial hair, visible tattoos, or jewelry, speech accent, visible weapons, what was said, etc. are all important. (Kids can do a remarkably good job of judging the age, height, and weight of a stranger when they compare him to someone they know well. “He was younger than my dad, about as tall, but my dad is a lot fatter and has less hair.”

Unfortunately, after an abduction attempt in Lynnwood years ago, several mothers began meeting their children at the bus stop visibly armed with loaded guns, for which they had permits. They told a reporter who wrote a front-page story that they wanted to send a message to sex offenders that their kids were off limits. Sadly, the only message sent was to the kids, who learned that the world can be so dangerous, that an armed escort is justified for the walk home.

When parents overreact to the common dangers we all face, their kids grow up under a cloud of fear, and are far more harmed by that than by the threat of an actual incident. Parents could have achieved the same level of safety by simply meeting their child at the bus stop, saying they missed the youngster, just wanted to walk home together, and hear about his or her day at school. Please don’t overreact and scare your children. There is no need to terrify them, and scare tactics often backfire. (There is much more on this subject, perhaps for another time.)

Man with a broken arm

Take the part of a man with a cast on his arm asking a child to help him carry a grocery bag from his car into his house or apartment. He’s just home from the hospital, and he knows the child will want to do a good deed. Remind your children that in this situation, they could get help for the man by asking a trusted adult or a parent to assist, but they should not help.

Have you noticed all the bad guys are men?

By now, you’ve probably noticed that all the bad strangers in my examples are male. That is statistically correct — child abductors who are strangers to the youngster are almost always men.  I know of hundreds of these situations, and women only played a part in just a few.

Your parents are hurt:

A man and a woman pull over to several children and tell one child that his parents have been badly hurt in a car accident, and you were sent to bring him to the hospital. Reassure your children that you will probably always be OK, but if there ever was a situation like this, someone they know and trust would be sent, never a stranger.

End with reassurance:

In my classes, I always ask how many kids have been in a school fire drill. Of course, all hands are raised. Then I ask how many have been in a real fire at school. Hardly ever does a hand go up. I ask them why they even do these potentially frightening drills, since fires at school are so rare. They immediately tell me, it’s just in case, it will probably never happen, but they need to know what to do, just in case.

Reassure your children it’s the same with your teaching about strangers — it is just in case, and they will probably grow up to be safe and sound. However, as good, loving parents, it is your responsibility to teach them these skills, just in case! Now give your youngsters big hugs and tell them how precious they are to you!

Keeping electronic track of your kids:

Today’s tech-savvy parents have access to all sorts of electronic gadgets to help keep track of their kids: Apple Air Tag, Jiobit, GPS Tracker, Smart Log and Smartwatch are just a few of the devices sold to help parents know the location of their offspring.

Unfortunately, some of these trackers are marketed with a strong emphasis on the fear of child abduction. If you do buy one of these, do not scare your kids, and do not think this gadget somehow keeps them safer, so you can avoid the subject of safety. Batteries wear out, electronics can be lost, but your teaching about safety will stay in their young minds. (A father I know told me he would simply slip the smallest device into his child’s shoe, jacket or backpack without making a big fuss, and would casually change the battery when needed.)

The real risk:

If you only teach your children about strangers, you will leave them woefully unprotected to deal with the more common danger of sexual assault made by someone they know and trust. This sexual abuse of children comprises at least 90% of all assaults against youngsters, and I would be glad to tell you how to talk to your kids about this threat.

Additional topics

There is so much more you must teach your children, and I am willing to cover additional important topics in future posts. Here are some possibilities:

  • Teaching safety without terrifying your kids
  • Helping children avoid sexual assault by someone they know
  • Teaching children how to get help if they need it
  • Twenty questions to ask before deciding to let kids stay home alone. (More than half of elementary school children now take care of themselves at home alone.)
  • Basic safety rules for kids
  • I am also willing to answer any questions you have.

My hope for your family

Children are precious, and they grow up so quickly. While they are still in our care, one of our most important responsibilities is to teach them to stay safe.

My best regards to you and your children.  May we all be safe and sound!

— By Trudy Kempton Dana

This article is copyrighted but may be reproduced with attribution to the author

Books by Trudy K. Dana:

‘‘Safe and Sound: A Parents’ Guide to the Care of Children Home Alone,’’ published by McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1988

‘’Safe and Sound: Kids Home Alone,’’ currently in the publication process

‘’Strangers Who Molest: Protecting Children From Sexual Predators,’’ 1991, Snohomish County Children’s Commission

“Police Citizens Academy: The Complete Guide for Producing a Topnotch Community Program,” published for law enforcement in 2012

“The Kemptons: Adventures of a Montana Ranch Family, 1880-1964,” published by Farcountry Press in 2019

“The Kemptons: Pioneer Adventures in the Valley of the Yellowstone,” awaiting publication, along with another unnamed book on the Kempton family


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