TEACHING YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT PREDATORS
Teaching our children about child predators is a very stressful, yet vitally important, thing we must do. As parents it is our job to protect these beautiful babies we have brought into the world, and as they grow older, that means that we need to begin arming them with the knowledge of how to stay safe themselves. These talks are often dreaded, and let’s face it, it hasn’t been that many years since parents started really accepting the responsibility to educate our children on this matter. We are all still learning, and in many cases, no one ever had the type of conversation with us that we now need to have with our children. As time passes, more and more technology is exposing our children to more predators than ever before. Social media is essentially putting together a catalogue for these monsters, helping them to find the ‘weak’ and move in for the kill. Children are trusting little beings, and they should remain so for as long as possible, but talking to our children about who they should trust is our best defense in ensuring that our children will recognize a bad situation when it happens, know who to talk to about that situation, and furthermore to have the confidence to talk about the situation.
All of us here at Lighting Their Way Home are parents, and as parents we understand the uncertainty that comes with talking to your child about predators. Will you scare them? Will you make the entire thing look like a joke? Will you really be able to convey the message at an age appropriate level? The questions go on and on, and so we have compiled some tips and advice that have helped us, as parents, along the way.
The first and most important thing to remember is so TALK to your children. Encourage and assure your children that they can always come to you and talk about anything that is bothering them. Make sure they understand that they will not get in trouble for speaking out if someone has been inappropriate with them. Make sure they know that your love for them will never change. Always maintain an open forum for discussion about anything and everything. When a child feels safe that they can talk without being judged or punished, we are bolstering their confidence in knowing that they are able to come to us with anything. While encouraging your children to talk to you, you need to remember to LISTEN to your children. When they talk about their day, about things they have seen or heard, about what makes them happy and what bothers them, simply listen. Make eye contact with them, and reinforce that they are being heard by engaging them in conversation. Sometimes we as parents forget to do this. We’re cooking breakfast, making lunches, ironing shirts and finding library books, so when your child comes to you, following you around the house trying to talk to you, we often tell them, ‘Not right now.’, ‘Mommy’s busy, we’ll talk about it later.’, these sort of responses. What we should be doing is sitting down with them and letting them talk. This may not always be possible every moment of every day, so I suggest setting up a certain time everyday where you commit to your children that you will make time to talk, so even on crazy busy days, they know that at 4:30 (whatever time works for you) they have your full undivided attention.
The second most important thing to remember is to never, ever, use fear as a tactic to keep your children safe. Scaring your children about what is a potential threat to them will do nothing but make them freeze up if ever placed in that situation. Fear is not knowledge, and it will not show your children what they should do to keep safe.
So many people ask us, well where do we start? Our answer, is right here.
When children are young, we can begin teaching them how to protect themselves by identifying ‘safe’ people. When doing this with my sons, I encouraged them to look for police officers, firemen, security guards, employees with name tags, and in my opinion the safest people of all, mothers with other children. Let’s be honest, if a child came up to you and your children upset and lost, your Mom instincts will kick in and you will ensure that the child remains safe, and comforted until their parents are located. You will be able to find staff to assist in finding the child easily, while doling out snacks and juice boxes. A lost and scared child may not always be comfortable with approaching the ‘safe’ people you have talked about, but they will be comfortable with another mother, especially younger children. They know that moms are here to protect them, that moms are who they go to when they need something, and that moms usually make everything better. Point out ‘safe’ people to your children when you are out and about. You don’t need to make it a big conversation each time, just casually mention, ‘see that cashier, is she a safe person?’, by encouraging them to answer these questions, their understanding of ‘safe’ people will stick with them quicker and become engrained in their memory.
Teach your children how to call 911 and make sure they understand what types of situations they should do this in. Explain to them that calling 911 in an emergency will bring ‘safe’ people to come help them. Teach them how to give 911 operators your address, yours and your partners full names, and their name and birth date. Decide on another adult that your children can call in case of an emergency, including your child in choosing who they would be most comfortable with. Again, make sure they know that person’s phone number and address, and encourage them to give that person’s information to ‘safe’ people in an emergency. With children that are still too young to memorize and relay the information properly, slip a contact card into their shoe or in a zippered pocket. Then teach your toddler to give a ‘safe’ person the card should they ever be separated from you, or in an emergency situation. This is an easy and simple way to ensure that your children will always be able to communicate with those there to help them.
Giving our child vital information is a great step in teaching them how to define unsafe or inappropriate situations. While out shopping with your children, point out where they should go if by chance they get separated from you. Make sure they know your cell phone numbers. Ensure them that you would never leave the mall or store without them, so they should never go outside looking for you, especially with someone. Remind them that a ‘safe’ person will never take them out of the store or mall without finding you.
Make sure your children understand that they should never answer the door for strangers, unless Mom or Dad has given them the ok. When my sons were young, we included people like the pizza delivery driver. Sounds silly, but they began to understand the difference in answering the door for Grandma and answering the door for a stranger. Our local pizza delivery driver caught onto this quickly and laughed when my three little boys were standing at the front door screaming pizza repeatedly while jumping up and down, then yelling for me to walk quicker to the door so they could answer it. Once I was with the boys (15 seconds later), they would ask if they could answer. It worked like a charm for my sons, and they very quickly understood that they needed to wait for me to be with them when they answered the door.
When choosing a babysitter, include your children in the decision and listen to their feedback. If your child is telling you that they are uncomfortable with a sitter, listen to them, and encourage them to talk about why they feel that way. Once they have expressed their feelings, find a new babysitter with them. By allowing your children to decide who they spend time with alone, you are empowering them feel confident in coming to you with their concerns and emotions.
As your children grow older, make sure they always tell you where they are going and who they are going with. Tell them they need to call you to check in every hour (while your child is young and beginning to venture out without you) and make sure they understand the consequences if they do not do so. Tell them that if they do not call, you will go looking for them and involve anyone necessary, including the police, until they are found and brought home, then follow through with that. By doing this you are teaching your children that if they want to go out on their own, then they need to maintain your trust by always relaying where they are. When your child is beginning to spend time alone with friends, make sure you know where they will be and who will be there supervising them. Know your children’s friend’s parents, and have a list of their numbers. I always give the parents of my son’s friends a quick call just to make sure that my son won’t be intruding on their family, and to establish with another adult where our children will be. This is important, because if a child has not shown up at their friend’s house within a reasonable time, you will know immediately. The opposite of this is also important. I can’t tell you the number of times my sons have convinced a friend to come over after getting off the school bus. Whenever they returned home from school with a friend tagging along, I would always tell them that their friend needs to go home and have their mother call me to make sure that it is ok for the friend to be over at our house. I would just give their friends a simple note to pass onto their parents, with my name and number written on it, and ask them to have their parents call me. It is a simple thing to do, and I am sure you would appreciate it if your child’s friend’s parents did the same for you and your child.
If your child walks to school, or walks to a bus stop, go with them the first couple of times and point out safe places in case they are being followed or lost. A church, a business, anywhere where your children can go to find a ‘safe’ person to help them. Make sure your children understand that they are NEVER to accept rides from anyone, unless you yourself have given them permission. Make sure your children walk along public places, and avoid quiet or badly lit streets. Encourage them to walk with a friend, and always stay in a group while waiting for the school bus. A single child is a target for predators, many children together are a deterrent. Teach your children that they should not give out personal information to strangers. If a stranger approaches them and starts asking questions, instruct your children to immediately walk away heading for a ‘safe’ person or ‘safe’ location (school, store etc.) Teach your children what to do should a stranger attempt to take them. Encourage them to kick, bite, scream and fight like hell. I have seen children in the mall that are being guided by a parent, when suddenly they use that ‘you’re not my mommy’ tactic, or they are simply crying and fighting too hard to say anything. We’ve all been there, you’ve been running errands all day with your children, it is an hour past your child’s nap time and they are miserable. Other parents look on with sympathy, and it never really occurs to anyone that the child may actually be in danger. I spent a long time trying to decide how I should teach my sons to gain attention if they are taken in a public area. I finally decided that they best thing I could teach my boys to do, was to scream for help, scream out my and their father’s name, their address, their phone number, and to repeat this while fighting as hard as they can. Anyone seeing and hearing a child do this will stand up and take notice as it is not an everyday occurrence. They will approach the child and whoever has them, to ensure the child is OK. Also, a predator attempting to take a child may be startled by this direct response, hopefully startled enough to panic and run. This is a very simple thing you can teach your children to do, and one that will be effective should they ever find themselves in a situation like this. It also reiterates the need to teach your children their address, phone number, and their parent’s information.
Technology has greatly changed since I was young, and is now providing yet another avenue for predators to prey on our children. Back in my day, we got to use the internet for no more than 30 minutes at a time, because it would tie up our phone lines. Of those 30 minutes, 20 were spent actually connecting to the internet. Also, back then we submitted our school work handwritten, (it’s true!), so we had no need to have a computer at the ready to do our homework, hell the only thing we used it for anyway was block breaker. Our computer was also smack dab in the living room, because the entire family shared a single one. How did we research things some might ask, it’s called a LIBRARY and the DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM. Libraries were used for something more than gossiping with your friends while texting the boy you liked at one time. Phones – this is the best by far. We used to have 1 phone number in the family. ONE. We called our friends in front of our parents, and the super lucky kids, got to have a phone extension in their room. If someone else picked up the phone while we were talking, they could listen to our conversation and we would never know. We knew what a busy signal was because everyone else had to also share their phone with their family. Texting didn’t exist, AND the phone I had to call my parents from when I was out, was a 15 pound car phone that hooked into the lighter outlet and cost $1/minute. When I was young, we dealt with people face to face. We knew each of our friend’s parents and siblings. We didn’t spend our time talking to complete strangers and giving out personal information. If you wanted to know what color eyes and hair I had, you had to look and find out for yourself. Our experiences with social media and the world wide web are a far cry from our children’s. In today’s world, our children have constant access to computers and phones. They are exposed to so much more than when we were as kids. Our children generally have a false sense of safety being on the internet, not fully realizing the trouble they can get into by giving out their personal information. Their phones have become their lifeline to the pulse of society, and has evolved into a device used for things such a sexting, and the exchange of inappropriate pictures. Children’s computers and phones are not monitored like they need to be. I know that I can’t monitor what my children see and do on the internet all of the time, so I make sure to take measures ensuring that they will not be able to access certain things, and that whatever they do access will be done in a family shared living space, not the privacy of their bedroom. Install parental controls on your computer. Monitor what your children are using the computer for, and how long they are allowed to be online. Educate your children on how to behave in cyberspace by giving them guidelines for how to maintain their privacy. Make sure their screen names, or social media accounts, do not provide any information which a predator could use to gain access to your children, and all settings are set to private. Maintain the rules and guidelines you have set for your children at all locations where your children can access a computer, such as at a relative’s house, a friend’s house, school etc. Take the time to talk to your children, inform them of what could happen if they reveal too much about themselves, especially to people they have never met. Remind them that there are people who use the internet who lie about who they are and what their intentions are. Technology is quickly evolving, and while we cannot monitor every single thing our children do with this technology, we can talk to them about how to keep themselves safe.
Talking to our children about sexual abuse is a vital thing every parent needs to do, and is something that will be ongoing and will evolve as your children grow older.
Make sure that you talk to your children about their sexuality. Have an honest conversation, and reinforce that their bodies are theirs and theirs alone. Ensure them that they should say no if anyone besides their doctor under supervision of Mom or Dad, tries to touch them. Include every day physical contact in empowering them with the knowledge that they will never have to do something physically that they are uncomfortable with. Don’t force your children to hug and kiss relatives if they don’t want to. By showing them that they are entirely in control, we are giving our children the knowledge that they can say no, without anyone being mad or upset about it. We need to talk to our children about ‘bad’ people, and about how they look just like anyone else. They do not look like monsters and are often friendly. They can be neighbors, friends, even family. Children are more hesitant to report abuse at the hands of someone they know for fear of angering anyone. We need to encourage our children to understand that the moment someone has been inappropriate with them, they no longer deserve your child’s respect, and that you will never be angry with them for coming to you. Explain to your children that their sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, they do have boundaries that need to be respected, but they are in control of their own bodies. Children who have been taught about their sexuality and have been given the confidence to say NO are the ones more likely to report any form of abuse, so in return are not children a predator would choose. A good way to teach children about when they need to tell you about something, is to teach them the difference between a secret and a surprise. My boys were taught at a young age that anyone who asks them to keep a secret is doing something wrong. They know that they should never keep secrets from their father and I, regardless of what someone may tell them. We gave them the information needed to see the difference between a secret and a surprise. We told them that surprises – such as surprise parties, birthday gifts, cards, etc – are good things to keep. By knowing how to differentiate the two, we have given our children the ability to recognize when something isn’t quite right. Predators are very skilled at threatening and silencing children. They will say anything they need to in order to keep a child silent about the abuse. Let your children know that if someone does something that is not OK, you will be very proud of them for telling you about it, regardless of what their abuser may say. Giving your children the confidence to stand up for themselves, takes the power away from the predator. My sons are now empowered to stand up for themselves and set personal boundaries, while showing respect for others.
When talking to your children about how they can keep themselves safe, make sure it is done in a calm, reassuring, matter of fact way. Don’t bombard them with every single piece of information you can find at once. Address a few points at a time encouraging conversation surrounding those points. Continue to have these conversations with your children at an age appropriate level as they grow older. You will be surprised at how educating your children on their personal safety, will in turn give you an education on what you can do to protect your children. You can find every book, article or flier you want regarding teaching children about predators, but when it comes to the bottom of it, there is only one tool that can really get the job done.
As a parent, you are the single most effective tool in fighting child abuse, you alone can give your child the confidence to know how to keep themselves safe by trusting their instincts.