Common Safety Myths: How to Really Keep Your Children Safe


Most people think they know how to keep their child safe: don’t talk to strangers, if you’re lost find a policeman. This is what we were told growing up, and nothing happened to us, right? What we don’t realize is that this advice is dated at best, and is potentially very dangerous. Mostly we try to say in our comfort zone by not thinking about these things except when something happens to someone else. And then we just get scared. But there’s an alternative to being ignorant, or scared.

Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)
by Gavin De Becker debunks the safety myths we grew up with and gives parents excellent advice on how to keep their children safe in an increasingly scary world. De Becker is a famous security consultant and wrote the book The Gift of Fear. His main point in that book is that most people have lost the ability to interpret and respond to their instinctual fear response and have not developed the judgment to know when they should, or shouldn’t be afraid. So, they spend most of their time hyped up in a completely wrong fear state (is that weird-looking guy in the book store really dangerous–probably not) and not picking up on cues when we should (that really nice guy is asking me too many personal questions.) The book is well worth reading, and more empowering than scary.

Here are a few things from De Becker’s book that we assume are true but can mislead our kids into danger:

Never talk to strangers: WRONG. In fact, you want your child to be comfortable talking to strangers. If your child is lost, it’s a virtual guarantee that any stranger they approach will be a safer bet than an stranger who approaches them. And if your child is wandering around scared because they’re afraid to ask for help, that’s exactly the kind of target a predator looks for.
Also, if your child has experience talking with strangers (conducted presumably with your supervision and discussion), they can start accumulating information on what makes them feel safe or uncomfortable, so they can develop their intuition and people smarts. You can have discussions with your kids about their experiences, asking questions like “Why did you pick that person to ask for help?” (it was a woman carrying a baby) or “Why did you look nervous after you talked to that clerk?” (he was being too friendly, and kept saying he’d be happy to show me where the rest rooms were even though I said I would go with you.)
If you’re lost, find a policeman: NO. Chances are, there’s no policeman in sight, and you want your kid to ask for help quickly instead of wandering around and having someone offer them help. Most people are decent, and your kid should just pick someone who looks safe, because they probably are. Another reason you shouldn’t tell them to look for a policeman is that it’s easy to confuse a security guard with a policeman, and you do NOT want your kids near security guards. Again, many of them are fine, but according to De Becker the profession is full of a lot of very unsavory people.
Kids are perfectly safe at school or camp: They may not be. De Becker has some good lists of questions you can ask your child’s school, or daycare, or camp, to determine how safe it might be. Interestingly, he suggests asking outright “have there ever been any cases of sexual abuse here,” mainly so you can find out whether the people you’re dealing with are the denying type (“oh, that would never happen here!”) that wouldn’t notice any problem that might arise.

Watch out for weird people: This can be misleading. Weird people may just be, well, weird. Or frankly, they might be developmentally delayed or handicapped. They may not even know that they “shouldn’t” be talking to kids because it makes moms nervous. The bottom line is that kids should trust their own instincts and ask if someone is doing something to make them feel uncomfortable. Sexual predators are more likely to be nice, well-behaved, and approachable, because they are usually very intelligent (and unfortunately, practiced) and want to appear normal so as to be able to lure children in. What kids should be careful of is an apparently “normal” person who asks them too many questions, offers personal information in an attempt to make kids feel like they’re obligated to respond in kind, or even just talks to them more than most adults seem to feel is proper.

Both De Becker books are good reads and contain quite a bit of surprising information. It’s easy these days to be overprotective, but that isn’t necessarily helping anyone if it ends up conveying a blanket fear that trains the useful instincts out of ourselves and our kids.