safety-skills

Would your kid pass the ice cream truck test? Teach stranger safety

April 15, 2012 at 11:22 AM ET

It’s a hot day and the jingling ice cream truck shows up, laden with icy treats. A friendly driver asks your child if he’d like to come into the truck to get a better view and adds, “Everything is free today!”

Parent gut-check: Would your child enter the truck? Or walk away?

Dateline producers wanted to find out just how school-aged kids respond to this scenario. And while you’d think all the lectures and safety drills on stranger danger would prepare your child for this moment, the reality is sobering: Dateline found that almost every child got inside the truck, much to their parents’ surprise – and horror.

Most kids are vulnerable to predator tactics and tricks, especially when the enticer appears young and friendly. And the pull of negative peer pressure often makes it even harder for kids to apply stranger safety lessons they've been taught.  These crucial tips -- which help empower your child to say “No!” -- provide a more effective way to teaching kids about stranger safety.

If you want your kid to stand up for herself, don’t get in the habit of speaking for her or rescuing. Doing so can rob a child from developing the very skills she needs to look and sound determined. Instead, find opportunities for child to practice using strong body language and a firm voice so she can learn to defend herself.

Give permission to say “NO”: Studies show that kids under the age of nine rarely say “No” to a sexual offender because they were told to "obey adults.” So give permission for your child to yell "No." Give an example for kids, such as: “If someone tries to touch you in places your bathing suit covers, or makes you feel at all afraid or uncomfortable, say “No!" (And remind them they will not be in trouble for saying "No.")

Use your gut instinct. A “fear factor” can be powerful in keeping kids safe, but often isn’t used because we fail to help our kids learn theirs. Teach your child that if she ever feels he could be in danger, to use that fear instinct and leave immediately. You’ll support her... no matter what!

Establish a family secret code and teach 9-1-1. Choose a memorable code like “Geronimo,” to give only to family members or trusted individuals responsible for your kids in your absence. Then stress: “Never leave with anyone who can’t say our family’s secret code.” Create a texted code (like “111” or “123”) to be used by the child to contact you if in danger. It recently saved a California teen from abduction. Also make sure your child knows her first and last name, your first and last name, phone number, and address. Program your phone so your child can reach you and dial 9-1-1 instantly.

Teach “Drop, Holler, and Run.” Teach your child that if he ever needs to get away quickly, he should drop whatever he is carrying, holler, and run. If possible, he should run to an adult (ideally a woman with children) screaming, “Help! This isn’t my dad!” If grabbed, he should hold on to anything (such as his bicycle handles or car door) holler, and kick an abductor in the groin or eyes. Dropping to the ground and kicking-tantrum style makes it more difficult to be picked up. Stress: “I’ll never be upset if you hurt someone when you’re trying to protect yourself.”

You also might brainstorm with your child on solutions. For example, which adult could he or she could turn to for help in various situations  when you’re not around (for instance, in your neighborhood or school). Ask them: “What if that person didn’t help or wasn’t there?” or “Who could you go to for help?”

Ultimately, you are laying the groundwork to not only prevent abuse but also get the crucial help a child might need.  The key lesson kids need to know when understanding stranger safety: Adults should not trick kids to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing. 

While there are no guarantees for our children’s well being, research shows we can teach a few crucial safety basics that may help them be less likely to be harmed. Though you may fear that talking about frightening issues such as kidnapping will scare the pants off your kids, not doing so is a mistake. Bring up the topic in a relaxed way, just as you discuss fire and pool safety. Just consider your child’s age, developmental level and the safety skills he needs at that point in his life.

Watch the Dateline special “Stranger Safety” with your child and use the examples of the children who got on the truck – as well as the one child who did not.  

NOTE: The special four-part Dateline parenting series “My Kid Would Never…” airs each Sunday night in April.

Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist, parenting expert and TODAY contributor. For more about her work see Michele Borba.com or follow her on twitter @micheleborba.

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