Monday, May 3, 2010

Keeping our kids safe...

Every parent is concerned about the safety of their children. In a society where 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 8 boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 16 it is worth getting some education around how to keep them safe.
Yesterday I had a discussion with a parent who asked me what 'moves' (referring to physical self defence) were the best to teach his two young children. I told him they were the least important aspect of personal safety for kids (albeit still important) and asked him if he was teaching them what to look out for so they could identify and avoid potential predators to start with. His reply was along the lines of "No, I just want to teach them what to do if a stranger grabs them. I tell them to stay away from strangers and all that of course".
This is the all-too-common type of response I hear from parents, and was one of the key reasons we developed our 'Guardian Angel' program, so let me challenge a couple of old beliefs here. Obviously this is a broad subject so I will just discuss a couple of key points here today.

The world is changing so rapidly with new technology, new laws and new societal forces that it is a constant challenge for parents and caregivers to teach their children to stay safe from harm.

Our efforts as a society to prevent crimes against children have not been able to keep up with the increasing levels of risk and vulnerability of our children.
The age old mantra of “Stranger Danger” which has become so ingrained in our psyches as the answer to teaching children to be safe is outdated and no longer relevant on its own. We need to move ahead with the times and adapt to the changing world around us if we are to best protect our kids.

So many crimes against children are preventable. In hindsight, so many parent’s of child victims look back and say “If only she’d known what to look for…”, “If only he hadn’t gone with him…”, “If only she’d talked to us about this, we could have caught it before it got out of hand…” etc, etc…

Prevention is about education. And the education must be specific and relevant to our New Zealand society today.

One of the most important aspects to child safety is open and honest communication between yourself and your child. Children who do not feel that they are listened to or understood at home are far more vulnerable to the exploitation of child predators. Remember, the predator is always looking for perceived ‘easy prey’. Low self confidence, low self esteem, low self beliefs, and a feeling of loneliness and isolation are all perfect tools for the child predator to use to their advantage.
This is also why we are such big advocates of martial arts for children. A good martial art instils confidence and positive self-beliefs in the child, automatically making them a “harder target”.

A home environment which makes your child feel confident and comfortable to discuss any matters, including sensitive ones, without fear of judgment or embarrassment is the first step, and one of the most powerful steps, in keeping your child safe.
The sad reality is children are too often afraid, embarrassed or confused to discuss or report their fears, situations and experiences.

As more and more crimes against children are reported by the media, and talked about in our social circles, we are in danger of building a paranoia around keeping our kids safe. This is not the answer either. There is a huge difference between paranoia and awareness. Living in paranoia is no way to live life, and can make us take things to extremes forcing an already rebellious teenager for example, to do just the opposite of what we want.

Awareness is about discussing openly the safety strategies and rules in a positive and reassuring way, as opposed to instilling fear into your child about all of the nasty things that could happen to them if they don’t follow the safety rules.
Kids need to be empowered with positive messages and safety skills that will build their self esteem and self confidence while helping to keep them safer. Kids don’t need to be told the world is a scary place. They watch the news, hear adults talking, and may even experience violence firsthand so they are well aware of that already. Rather, they need to know that their parent or caregiver is there for them if they are in trouble and have it reinforced that most adults they encounter in their lives are generally good people who would not hurt a child.

Part of the process of ensuring that home is always a ‘safe haven’ for your child in addition to open communication, is to absolutely ensure that if you impose a punishment upon your child for misbehaviour, that punishment should never place your child in danger in any way.
We recently read a case file of a young girl who went out for a night with her friends, and arrived home after her curfew time. As this was not the first time she had done it, her mother decided to teach her a lesson and lock her out of the house. Too afraid of her mother’s wrath to knock on the door, she headed for a friend's house. A man approached her, manipulated her into conversation with him, 'sympathetically' listened to her situation and in doing so gained her trust…
He then abducted her, repeatedly raped, and murdered her.
The actions of her mother, fed up and looking to send a clear message to her daughter by denying her the safety and refuge of her own home, indirectly resulted in her death. A punishment should never place a child in danger.

So what about “Stranger Danger”? We’ve all grown up with it. We’ve all been told to “Stay away from strangers”. And this message/concept may have served us well, but it is now redundant and needs updating urgently.
This is a big call.
The unfortunate reality is most cases of child abduction/exploitation (well over 80%)are committed by someone known to the child, and maybe not known to the parent. The offender does not fit the “Stranger” role so therefore the child’s awareness/guard is down.
Often a child predator will make seemingly innocent contact with the child. They use subtle tactics and manipulation to gain the confidence of their victim, befriend them and lower their guard, again removing the “Stranger” label.
It is important that children and parents understand the types of situations, tactics, and approaches used by these people.

It is far more important to teach children to be aware of certain types of situations than certain types of people. That is the concept at the core of 'Guardian Angel'.

When describing the “Stranger Danger” concept to children, parents often promote visions of “dodgy”, “sleazy”, “dirty” looking men. This typecast labelling is very dangerous. Many times the predator does not fit any of these profiles. They are the everyday “normal” looking person, the neighbour, the teacher, the friend’s parent. Typecasting dangerous people promotes a narrow view and leaves the child open to all of the unexpected possibilities. It is the situation or action that the child should be aware of, regardless of who the person is. Besides, as adults we have the benefit of experience and honed decision making skills that we have acquired over our lifetime to identify dangerous people, and we still often get it wrong. So how do we expect our kids to be able to identify “bad” people when we can’t even do it?

Also keep in mind that if your child needs help, the “never talk to strangers” message in isolation effectively eliminates a key source of help for your child if they are in trouble. They just need to know who to get help from if they need it.
Parents and children need to know what the common approaches of a child predator are. For example, an adult pulling over their car to ask the child for help with directions, lost puppy, etc. Adults should not have to ask kids for help. Kids can ask kids for help. Adults should ask adults for help.

As our children are bought up to be polite, to respect their elders and obey the orders of adults, it is important to let them know that in these situations it is ok to say “no” to an adult. Their personal safety is always more important than being polite.

All common situations, setups, manipulations should be discussed with your child in a positive, clear, calm and reassuring way. This is far more important and effective than teaching them to look out for a particular image or profile of a “Stranger”.
Kids should view safety strategies as positive, and even fun (in a serious way). They don’t need to be frightened into thinking the world is a big scary place full of people who want to hurt them, they get enough of that from the media every day. They need to know that they have you there whenever they need you, and that most adults they encounter are good people, the safety rules are there just in case…

Here are a few things you can do to help prevent possible exploitation or abduction situations:

- Teach your children to recognise potentially dangerous situations and teach them that it is ok to say “no” to an adult.

- There really is more safety in numbers. Teach your child to always go places with a friend if possible. This is a major, key point.

- Teach them to know the difference between “good touches” and “Bad touches”. Any touch in a place where a bathing suit would normally cover is a bad touch, as are any which make them feel frightened, confused, uneasy, uncomfortable or “funny”. They should know it is ok to say no and to tell you immediately if someone does try to touch them in this way.

- Checking first with you before going anywhere, or doing anything new should be promoted as a healthy and positive part of your household routine with your child. This is a major point and can not be emphasized enough. The way you promote this concept to your child to ensure they “buy in” to it is vital, they need to see that it is always in their best interests and they have your full support.

- Know your child’s friends, and their parents, and have up-to-date contact lists for them all. Knowing where your children are and who they are with is important. Through open communication this can be done without seeming “controlling” or “invasive”.

- Be aware of anyone who is giving inappropriate or expensive gifts to your child, or paying them an unusual amount of attention.

- Pay attention to changes in your child’s behaviour and be prepared to sit down and discuss what the issues are with them when they occur. These are often a call for help and should be treated sensitively but seriously.

- Be empathetic and supportive to your child’s worries and fears, listen to them carefully and help guide them to find a solution together.

- Teach your children to trust their intuition and feelings and let them know that if it feels wrong it definitely is and they have the right to say no.

- Be diligent of anyone who is in a position of care for your child. Babysitters, sports coaches, tutors etc. References from people you trust are a great place to start. Be extra diligent if the situation requires that your child be left alone with the individual in privacy.

Obviously I have only covered a few of the key points on child safety in this article. There is a lot more to it, but these points are a good start and something worth thinking about.

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