If there is anything consistent in the world of child safety, it's that we're always learning.
15 - 20 years ago "stranger danger" was the focus, until we came to the understanding that the vast majority of violent acts against children are not perpetrated by strangers. In the past 10 years, we've seen an evolution in online technology safety…gone are the days when the family's one computer could be kept in a public area of the house and typing "POS" (Parent Over Shoulder) was one of the ways that children circumvented parental supervision while they were chatting online. Today, most pre-teens and teens are carrying their computers in their pockets and purses, with full, unsupervised access to the worldwide web and all of its hidden dangers.
Child Safety Experts need to be fluid, constantly adapting to the latest threats, and staying on top of best practices as they help parents raise empowered children. One safety tool that many child safety experts and advocates suggest is a family safety code word. This is a word that is only known by the child and parents, and it can be used in several ways:
- Parents who need to send another adult to pick up their child for some reason, maybe an emergency situation, can tell that adult the safety code word. Children are told that they should never go with an adult, either stranger or someone they know, unless that person knows the safety code word.
- Families can use the safety code word as a signal of danger. If a child is somewhere, maybe home with a babysitter or at a friend's house, the child can use the word in a sentence over the phone with the parents to let them know that she needs them to come right away because there is danger. An example of this would be "Hi, Miss Babysitter, we just called to say good night to little Susie, could you put her on the phone?" and when Susie gets on the phone she could say, "We're having a lot of fun, Mommy, but would you take me out for a banana split tomorrow?" If the safety code word is banana split, then mom knows that there is a situation that requires her to come home immediately.
- The danger signal can also be used if the family is out together, make a plan of what to do if the word is used. For example, if the family is walking in a dangerous part of town and someone ominous approaches them, Dad could say the safety code word and Mom and kids know that they need to immediately run in the opposite direction and get help.
Safety code words can be very effective, but this is not always the easiest or most reliable system. Here are a few things to consider if you are using safety code words:
- Can your child be relied upon to keep the word a secret? Whenever we teach a class for younger children, we talk about safety code words and ask if there is anyone in the class who uses them. Invariably, one or two children raise their hands. We always say "Great! That's terrific! What word do you use?" and the children, 99.9% of the time, will say the word…out loud…to a roomful of complete strangers.
- Savvy predators are experts at manipulating their targets, and they have lots of ways to confuse a child and convince him that he doesn't need the safety code word in that moment, or to trick the safety code word out of the child. If you decide to use safety code words, do a lot of role playing with your child to practice.
- Can you be relied upon to remember the safety code word? This is an even bigger one. If the family decides that the word is "banana split," you can bet that your child will remember it, even years later. But if you don't need to use the safety code word for anything for six, seven, eight months, will you remember it when you do need to use it in an emergency?
- Safety code words are "one time use," meaning that the word will need to change each time it is given out to someone outside the family. This is a further complication that should be considered.
Again, safety code words can definitely be a good tool in your family safety plan, but families who choose to use them should be clear about all of the pitfalls.