The secret to keeping your kids safe from bullying, peer pressure, abduction, and abuse. Plus a danger parents often miss.
Do you and your kids really know the basics of being safe around others? Mom of two Irene van der Zande thought she did, until a scary incident while chaperoning her daughter and a group of young friends in downtown Santa Cruz—”in a public place in the middle of an ordinary day with people all around.” Twice a man charged the group and threatened to take one of the girls. With a bystander’s help, she yelled and intimidated the man away. “The kids were okay, but I wasn’t,” she recalls. What if he’d knocked me down, she kept thinking. What if he’d grabbed one of the kids? Even more unsettling was a comment she overheard her daughter say to a friend as they rehashed the day: “I wish I knew how to do what my mom did.”
That’s why Van der Zande founded the nonprofit Kidpower in 1989, bringing together experts in education, martial arts, mental health, child safety, and law enforcement to develop programs to prevent violence and abuse and promote positive relationships, in ways that are healthy, practical, and fun, not alarming.
Today, Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International’s innovative “People Safety” workshops and curricula empower all ages around the U.S. and abroad. We asked Van der Zande, the organization’s founder and executive director, to share what she sees as basic, essential life skills every child should have:
Being safe is many things. It’s how you deal with bullying and harassment, how to set boundaries, how to project an attitude of confidence. How to speak up when your friends are doing something unsafe and how to overcome the emotional triggers that make it hard to do that. We’re concerned with how to be safe with and around people, emotionally and physically, in all kinds of situations and relationships.
The question I hear most from parents of younger kids: “How can I teach my child to be safe without making him or her scared?” Start by replacing fear with knowledge about how to protect your kids. Then teach safe behaviors in a positive way, and practice them. You can make kids terrified of cars if you say, “Watch out, they’re powerful, and if you step in front of one, it will smash you to bits!” Or you can teach your child practical ways to be safe around cars: Hold hands, stop, look both ways, and so on.
The question I hear most from parents of older kids: “How can I support my kids’ independence while keeping them safe?” You have to be realistic about your child. Kids are different. Some are ready for more independence than others. Assess each situation, and your child’s abilities, realistically. “Co-piloting” is a great way to field test the skills you’ve practiced: Before you let your child do an activity alone, such as walking to the store or riding a bus, exploring social media or the Internet, tag along on that activity with your child, letting your child lead the way. This gives your child the opportunity to show you what he or she can do, and it gives you the opportunity to notice any unexpected problems and to ask questions to check on your child’s understanding.
The key is practice—rehearsing skills through role-playing in a fun, age-appropriate way. Parents often say, “I told her!” But as Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”
For example, younger children can practice throwing hurting words away that others say to them or they say to themselves into a real trash can or one that they make with their bodies—and replacing that with kind words that they take into their hearts.
Older children (and even adults) can do the same practice but with different, more intense words—and can also learn how to take the power out of their emotional triggers.
Something parents worry about but shouldn’t: Being labeled an overprotective helicopter parent. You can’t spare your kid every experience that might hurt him, but there’s a difference between hurt and harm. You can be vigilant. There’s a difference between letting your child fall from the monkey bars close to the ground (temporary hurt) and letting her fall off a cliff (lasting harm).
Something parents don’t worry about but should: Actually, we encourage parents not to worry. Worry doesn’t make kids safer. It makes kids anxious. When there’s a tragic abduction, for example, people get fearful; they drive their kids to school for a while. Then they stop. But from the kids’ perspective, nothing has changed. They’re still scared.
Better: Practice with kids how to be safe—how to move away if someone approaches them and how to get help from busy adults. Rehearse the skills over and over in an age-appropriate way. That’s what decreases anxiety and increases competence.
One of the most dangerous situations for kids of all ages is being harmed by someone they know, whether another kid, a family member or friend, an acquaintance, someone at a party, a boyfriend, or girlfriend. It’s important to teach kids that acting respectfully sometimes requires NOT doing what someone wants them to do by refusing politely and instead firmly doing what they think is best.
An important lesson for parents of very young children is to be vigilant and not blindly trusting. Ask a lot of questions. Even with a playdate, the other parent may have very different values from you. Make sure you’re on the same page about what’s going on and who’ll be with your child at all times.
It’s just as important for parents to pay close attention to anyone who seems to be singling out your child for special favors, gifts, or time alone. Pay attention to your intuition. Trust your radar. If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions.
A simple thing parents can teach young kids is to “check first” before they make a plan, even with people they know: what will they be doing, who will they be with, where are they going—and to always let other people know what they’re doing. If a neighbor says “Come over, I baked some cookies,” we teach them to check with you first, even if they’ve been there a lot. If the neighbor says, “I already checked with your mom,” we teach them to stand up and walk away as they say, “I need to do it myself.”
A simple thing parents can teach teens to be safe is to “think first” before making decisions or plans. Assess the situation. If you’re at the mall in a movie line and someone is handing out coupons for pizza to everyone, that’s different from being in an isolated place after a movie and being approached by someone. We teach kids to say, “No thanks,” and walk away.
A danger parents are often ill-prepared for: The fact that their kids keep changing and surprise you with their choices. My favorite story is the teenage boy who forgot his key and decided to enter the house through the chimney—then got stuck. His reason: No one had ever told him not to go in that way!
One of the best ways to stop bullying is to create positive social climates that make it hard for bullying to grow. That’s the job of adult leadership. Make sure you know what kids are doing. Model social skills yourself, and insist on them. For example, we often see No Bullying signs all over schools. But after school, a teacher might walk out right past a scene where one kid has his head down and another is pointing at him. They might be thinking, That’s not my job. I’m tired. Their parents are right there. Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, if you don’t address the situation, you’re making a lie of all those signs. You don’t have to stage a big intervention. Just ask, “What’s going on?” Or, “This doesn’t look safe.”
A story I carry to this day in my heart: I was consulted about a girl with Down Syndrome who was teased and called “the slowest ant in the school.” I taught her how to throw the word in her “personal trash can” and instead tell herself, “When you go slow, you see a lot.” Her mom said the change this simple tactic brought in her daughter was transformational. The girl even added this observation: “And if you go too fast, you miss everything.” Talking to yourself in ways that are not destructive—that’s part of safety, too.
One of the best ways to stop abduction is staying in charge of kids until they have the skills to keep themselves safe. Make learning about abduction a process that you rehearse over and over. Stay aware. Move away. Check first. Yell and run to escape. Know how to get help. For example, suppose a child gets lost. We practice how to make a safety plan whenever you go into a new place or a place you haven’t been for a while—such as a specific checkout counter. We then have the kids imagine that can’t see their grownups and practice how to stop and look around—and then to yell. If that doesn’t work, we teach kids to go to place they identified—and to go the front of the line and interrupt to ask for help.
One of the best ways to stop sexual abuse is to make sure you know who’s in charge of your kids. Pay attention to your own gut feelings. If something seems off, don’t ignore it. Also, teach your kids that problems, gifts, activities should never be secret—and that they can interrupt you or another adult at any time to ask for help. Sexual abuse thrives in secrecy.
Remember that highly charismatic people everyone trusts can be harmful to kids. It could be a teacher, coach, popular parent, friend, or celebrity (like Michael Jackson or Bill Cosby). Just because people are popular or visible doesn’t mean they can’t be dangerous. They might bully, shame, abuse, or just not protect your child adequately. Often, parents contact us because their child is in a theater group, gymnastics program, swim team, or other activity with an adult leader whom all the kids vie for the attention of but who is emotionally coercive in ways that exclude the parents.
A success story I’m proud of happened when an 8-year-old girl was part of a class demonstrating Kidpower safety lessons. A year later, when we were back, she raised her hand and said, “Kidpower saved me. A man called a friend and me over to his car when we were walking in my neighborhood, but I knew what to do—I grabbed my friend and we ran for safety.” Trying to be fair, I said, “Wouldn’t you have known what to do anyway?” “No,” she insisted, “Kidpower saved me.”
Photo: Carissa Rogers/Flickr
- Irene van der Zande is the founder and executive director of Kidpower.
- Visit their extensive (and free) online library for more resources.
- Is your child the 1 in 4 getting bullied (but not telling)? Here’s what to look for—and what actually helps.