On the subject of preschool safety tips, last night I had the pleasure of presenting a Child Safety Tips seminar to parents at the Intown Jewish Preschool in Atlanta. The presentation was very well received and I was asked to summarize the tips I gave specifically for parents of preschoolers. This is a long blog installment, but I hope you will find it beneficial.
Safety Tips for Parents of Preschoolers
It should be noted that it is Revved Up Kids position that no child age 5 and under should ever be out of the direct supervision of a parent or trusted adult under any circumstances. Children this age are too young to fully understand and respond to dangerous situations and people, and they simply do not have the physical strength to defend themselves in an attack situation.
Here are some safety suggestions and tips for parents of preschoolers. Keep in mind that you are the parent and you need to make decisions about how you want to raise your child. All of these suggestions are helpful ways to introduce safety concepts at an early age, but they are not law and you need to parent in the way that you are most comfortable.
- As soon as you begin teaching body parts, use correct names for all of them, including genitals. Be matter of fact in your use of the terms vagina, penis, anus in the same way you are matter of fact in your use of eyes, nose, mouth. Children aren't the ones with the hang ups about this, it's adults. The Child Advocacy Center advises that if your child ever has to testify about a sexual assault and your child doesn't know the correct names when describing the body parts, it gives the defense ammunition to question your child's credibility in the situation.
- Teach your child that his/her privates are everything covered by a bathing suit and that privates are private. No one should see or touch their privates except a doctor in the doctor's office, and only if mommy or daddy say it's okay. Your child will naturally explore and touch his/her own body, and we encourage you not to introduce shame in that. If you witness it, you can matter-of-factly say "it's okay for you to touch your privates, but it's not okay for anyone else to do that, and it's not okay for you to touch anyone else's privates. If anyone ever wants to do that, you need to tell mommy or daddy about it." During our discussion, the subject of nudity within a household came up…is it okay, is it not okay, what is the rule? The rule is, there is no rule. Within your family unit (not extended family, just immediate family in your house), you need to determine the level of acceptable nudity. My pediatrician told me when my children were little that the time to stop the cross-gender nudity (meaning our daughter seeing her father naked or our son seeing me naked) was when the child started noticing. Her advice was, if your children don't make a distinction between a conversation with you standing there fully clothed and a conversation with you standing there naked, then you shouldn't be concerned about being naked in front of your child. Once they start noticing, you should start being more modest with the opposite gender. As you make this determination, keep in mind that the most important thing you can do is NOT make nudity shameful. If your child parallels nudity with shame, it makes it easier for a predator to use that against your child, "Your mommy would be very mad that you let me see you with no clothes on, wouldn't she? You would probably get in a lot of trouble because mommy says it's bad to be naked. I won't tell if you don't tell, okay? Let's just keep it a secret between us."
- In regards to tip #2, a parent asked "What about a teacher or caregiver changing a diaper?" My advice to you is that your child may not associate that with touching of his/her privates, so you don't need to bring it up unless your child does. If your child asks the question, then you can respond and say that "Just like it's okay for the doctor to sometimes touch your privates, mommy thinks it's okay for your teacher to change your diaper, but if you ever feel funny about it or you don't like it, will you tell mommy? And if anyone else touches your privates, you should also tell mommy about it."
- Secrets vs. Surprises - Child Safety Expert and Author Jill Starishevsky suggests that you change your dialogue about secrets. Define "secret" as something that feels dark and scary and makes you sad, and something that you are never allowed to tell. Define "surprise" as something that you hold inside and it makes you happy and excited and you get to tell it when the time is right. We suggest that you tell your children that secrets are bad, they should never keep a secret from you even if the person who gave them the secret made them feel scared. Tell them that they always need to tell you and you'll make it better no matter what. Try to change the dialogue not only within your family unit, but also with your extended family and friends so that everyone is using the same language. We discourage you from talking in any detail about the types of threats a predator might use, this is too frightening for children of this age.
- Allow and encourage your child to trust his/her instincts. Instinct is the single best safety tool that any of us have. Adults are notoriously bad at trusting instinct, opting instead for logic or politeness, and it often results in peril. I have had conversations with many many victims of violent crime over the years, and each time someone shares a story, I always ask them if they knew before it happened that something wasn't right, and EVERY SINGLE TIME WITHOUT FAIL they say yes. If we teach our children and empower our children to use and trust their instinct from a very early age, it will be a very valuable tool for their lifetime. You do this by not belittling or brushing off a concern or fear that your child expresses. Even if it's ridiculous to you, your child's body is telling him/her that something isn't right, and you need to take that seriously. If your child is afraid to go into your basement, instead of saying "that's silly, it's just another room, go down and play," you should say "I'm sorry you're feeling scared, can you tell me what we can do together to fix that?" and then do it, even if it's completely irrational on your part. My children both went through a phase where they were afraid to sleep in their rooms at night. This happened for both of them around age 4, and it appeared to be a developmental phase where they were not making a distinction between fantasy and reality in what they were seeing on tv and in videos (for my daughter, it was a fear of the snake in Jungle Book and for my son it was a fear of something he saw on the PBS cartoon Arthur). We came to an agreement that they were allowed to come in our room and sleep with us if they woke up and were scared, but they weren't allowed to wake us up. We put a sleeping bag and a pillow on our bedroom floor and they could quietly come in the room and sleep. For both of them, the phase lasted about a month and then they worked through it….we didn't force them to stay in their rooms, alone and afraid in the dark, we acknowledged their fear and took it seriously and came up with a solution that they found acceptable.
- Don't force physical contact that makes your child uncomfortable. Allow your child to decide who touches him/her, allow your child ownership of his/her body. If your child doesn't want to hug Uncle George because his face is scratchy or he smells funny, don't force your child to do it. An alternative could be a handshake. Your child's body is just that, your child's. Teach this from a very early age and give your child a sense of ownership and empowerment.
- Don't talk to strangers. As hard as it is, you must implement a very black and white rule that your child doesn't speak to strangers in any context. Even the benign interaction in the grocery store checkout line: STRANGER: "what a cute dolly, does she have a name?" YOU: "Tell the nice man your dolly's name, Susie." Think about the fact that you are encouraging your child to speak with strangers and be polite and do what the stranger asks. If you are not with your child and a stranger approaches, what can you expect your child to do? Children this age need very black and white rules to follow, they simply do not process in the gray area. We tell the children who take our class "Even the bad grown-up who is a stranger is going to be nice to you at the beginning." The flip side of this rule is that you need to refrain from attempting to engage in conversation with other people's children who you don't know, and that's really really hard to do, but it's the safest choice.
- Final tip, don't leave your child alone at activities. Either you or another trusted adult should be present and watching over your child at all activities. If you are the predator in the room, will you target the child who is always under the direct supervision of an adult, or will you target the child who gets dropped off and then picked up later?
We hope that these tips will help you keep your young children safer. We also recommend Jill Starishevsky's book "My Body Belongs To Me" as a good resource for teaching young children about sexual abuse in a non-frightening way. Please feel free to share this information with your friends.
If you're reluctant to begin having these conversations with your children, please take a look at this short video that tells a story of two boys and gives parents the "push" they need to open the dialogue.
Be Smart, Be Strong and Be Safe ~ The RevvedUpMom