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How to teach your kids ‘safety smarts’

Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba explains how to impart a few crucial safety basics to your children in a relaxed but effective manner.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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. The secret is to bring up the topic in 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.

The best way to teach any skill is to show what it looks like, and then practice it until the child can use it alone. And if you want your child to stand up for herself, don’t get in the habit of speaking for her. It can rob her from developing the skills she needs to look and sound determined. Instead, find opportunities for her to practice using strong body language and a firm voice so she can learn to defend herself.

Establish a family secret code. 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.

Help your child recognize suspicious behavior. Instead of scaring (and possibly even confusing) your kids with the “Stranger = Danger” approach, experts suggest that a better approach is to teach kids to recognize suspicious situations. Here are a few adult behaviors kids should be aware of:

Asking for help: “I need help finding my child. Please help me!” “Can you help me look for my puppy?”

Offering treats: “Would you like some candy?” “I have a skateboard in my car. Would you like it?”

Feigning an emergency: “Hurry! You mom was in an accident. I’ll take you to the hospital.”

Flaunting authority: “I think you’re the kid who hurt my son. Come with me and we’ll go find your parents.”

Pretending to be an official: “I’m with the FBI and this is my badge. You must come.” (Tell your child to call you ASAP to verify the situation.)

Faking friendship with a parent. “I’m an old friend of your dad’s. He asked me to come over. Can you take me to your house?”

Emphasize to your child that she can always ask a stranger for help, but a stranger does not ask kids for help.

Do NOT open the door. Stress repeatedly to never open the door to someone who is not an immediate family member. Explain that anyone who is a friend will understand your rule and not mind waiting. Emphasize: “Don’t say anything — find a parent!” If you’re not home, tell your child to phone you from a back room or 9-1-1 if in danger.

Teach 9-1-1. 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. Put a sticker on the “0.” Then teach how to dial “operator” to reverse charges, so she can call you from any phone anywhere.

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 if you’re trying to protect yourself.”

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 she could be in danger, to use that fear instinct and leave immediately. You’ll support her.

Kids need our permission to defend themselves, and they then need to know how to do so. Above all, remind your son or daughter that you are there whatever the situation may be, and you love him or her no matter what.

Dr. Michele Borba is a Today show contributor and parenting expert. These tips are from her most recent book, .