I am writing for advice on how to talk with children about their safety. My child has a curious and adventurous nature. I wish to honor that, and yet also keep her safe. We live in an urban environment, and there are a lot of safety concerns from traffic, strangers, etc. She has started asking “why” about most everything and wants to be independent sometimes. She wants to know why she can’t play alone outside, why she must be carefully escorted through parking lots and streets. She has a keen awareness of an answer that is less than complete. I don’t want to frighten her with explanations of what could happen, and yet I want the seriousness of the dangers to be apparent. Thank you for your time on my question. I admire your work so much. Thank you.
I can assure you that a child can handle the basic information about life. It is part of being human. Tribal people have nature to deal with instead of traffic. They teach children about storms, mud slides, water, bugs, lizards, animals, fire and even ‘strangers’ from another tribe or social group. Being a human includes dealing with dangers.
Babies intuitively want to be with faces they are familiar with. They are capable of learning about real life gradually with parental protection and guidance. As a parent you do not need to pretend that everybody is going to care about your child. Knowing that some people are not going to care about her is an honest and helpful view of reality.
Don’t teach illusions but reality. Even before facing her need to go anywhere on her own, be honest about the way you choose where you go and with who. I notice that children who grow up with a candid view of society, on their own, have a healthy level of fear around strangers and prefer to be with those who care for them.
The key is your attitude when you present the information. Don’t make a formal presentation out of it. Saying, “I need to talk to you about something” and then sitting down for a serious talk can be too dramatic. Instead, provide information in a benign tone and only in relation to a specific circumstance. You talk about water safety when your are on the beach and about people’s safety when in the store, “I need to be able to see you at all times.” “Why?” “Because I love you and don’t want anyone to hurt you.”
You never need to say that some people are bad or dangerous. Instead, when the question arises, relate to the specific situation, “He looks unsafe to me. I am not sure he can control himself, lets go somewhere else.” You can tell her that there are people who are confused and unhappy. Maybe they didn’t have loving parents or are ill and in pain. Let her know that when people are sad, confused, or mentally ill they can hurt others. Reassure her that she cannot become like them because she has a loving family and good care. She might be more fearful of becoming like them than of what they can do to her.
If she probes further, you can explain that an unhappy person may drink or eat things that make them behave in strange and harmful ways. If she asks specifically what such people may do, use a kind and relaxed tone to share some facts, “Sometimes they are so lonely that they want to take a child away. And, yes, people can even be aggressive and hurt someone.”
We don’t have to impart every information available, but be honest and respond to the child’s questions, without drama or unnecessary details, but with honesty. I remember explaining to my children, “Some people are driven to touch the body of a child. So it is important to always be with someone you know, just in case.”
Mingle the need for safety with compassion toward those who are less fortunate than your child. After all, the people you want to protect your child from, lacked protection and love when they were children as well as now. Instead of thinking of it as bringing fear into your child’s mind, think of it as connecting her to the world and its people and knowing that at this time, her safety and care is dependent on being with her parents.
Warmly, Naomi Aldort, www.AuthenticParent.com