A Street Proofing Primer

Teaching your child how to identify and react to danger.

A Street Proofing Primer

Photo: Gerri Photography


Street proofing is one of the “life skills” we teach our children to keep them safe when we are not by their side. We are teaching them how to recognize and respond to possible danger from people – not just strangers, but those close to them too.

The trick is to teach our kids how to be responsible and keep themselves safe without turning them into fearful beings. After all, kids need to have the freedom to explore their surroundings, spread their wings and have some independence to make age appropriate decisions. This will enable them to become confident and resourceful adults.

Helping our kids to develop their abilities to problem solve and to predict situations where they need a “plan B” empowers them to take care of themselves without focusing on the fear factor.

The truth about “stranger” abductions

The number one fear most parents have is that a stranger will abduct their child. The media, while doing its job, plays a huge role in stoking this fear by alerting us to child abductions and the harm that can come to children.

This means that every child’s abduction by a stranger feels like it is close to home. We respond by assuming the “Stranger Danger” stance and stress to our kids over and over again to never talk to or accept gifts from strangers. In reality, the chances of abduction by strangers are quite slim.

It may surprise you to know that family members are the most prevalent abductors of children. RCMP statistics show that over the 10 year period from 1997-2007, there were 481 child abductions by “strangers”. The RCMP includes relatives, friends, acquaintances, and people unknown to the child under that category. However, during that same time period, there were 4,092 child abductions by parents!

We may erroneously think that a child is somewhat ‘safe’ with a parent or a relative who abducts them. But family members were responsible for 63 per cent of the 1990 solved cases of children and youth homicides during the span from 1974 to 1999. Twenty-seven per cent of the murders were committed by acquaintances, and only 10 per cent by strangers.

While a child’s death is a tragedy under any circumstances, parents should not focus solely on the stranger danger when teaching kids how to protect themselves. Instead they need to empower their kids against potential harm from any adult. But let’s deal with the question of strangers first.

Some strangers are safe

However small the percentage of abductions by strangers, we must still teach our children that not all adults are safe. But we also have to create balance by letting them build trusting relationships with new people (under our supervision of course), and explore the world without being at their backs every minute of the day.

One of the perplexing things we teach our children is not to talk to strangers – and we know we have done an excellent job when they clam up when introduced to someone new! Making our children feel safe and secure is important, but we do not want them to fear people and new situations since that can spill over into many aspects of their lives. Also, if we teach them not to speak to strangers, then to whom can they go for help when they need it?

We do not want to impede a child’s ability to access help and assistance for fear of breaking the “don’t talk to strangers” rule. Rather than using the word “stranger”, use the terms “unknown adult” and “safe adults” so they are able to differentiate between the two. Help them to recognize who they can turn to for help – such as someone wearing a name badge in a store, a police officer, or a bus driver.

Because abductions are done more often by people the child knows, however casually, the focus of street proofing has to be broader than just “stranger danger”. This will reinforce the concept that these life skills are not just aimed at people unknown to them.

What to teach your kids

These safety guidelines will help arm your children in dangerous situations.
Teach them:

  • to memorize their first and last name, address, including city and province, phone number and area code,
  • how to operate a touch tone phone and a rotary phone to call 911. Remember this old technology would be new to them. They can dial 911 free from a pay or cell phone.
  • to use the buddy system at all times – never to go anywhere alone if at all possible,
  • not to use shortcuts – being visible on a the street is much better,
  • to kick, bite, scream, and yell, “This person is not my parent,” if someone tries to grab them,
  • never to give out identifying information about themselves over the internet – including the name of their school and teacher, their favourite sporting activity or their school itinerary,
  • never to keep secrets or confidences from parents even if another adult asks them to do so. This holds true even if one parent asks the child to keep a secret from the other one! For example, if one parent tells the child, “I’m taking you on a trip to Disneyland, but don’t tell your mom/dad,” the child should tell the other parent.
  • who is a safe adult, and who is an unknown adult. Point out the safe adults to the kids when you are out – store clerks, security guards, police, or others. Then role play: “If you got lost, who could you go to for help in this store?” By having your kids identify safe adults, you are increasing their chances of using this strategy if they need to.
  • to check with you before going anywhere with another person – even with people they know. Explain that you are looking out for their best interests and must be able to make the decision about whether or not an offer can be accepted.
  • never to accept anything from someone without your permission – not just from strangers, but people they know as well,
  • that “cyber friends” are not like friends that you have in person. They should never arrange to meet cyber friends unless you are invited along to meet them too.
  • a code word in case there is an emergency and you can’t get to them. They should not go with any person who does not know the code word.
  • that if someone approaches them and they feel threatened, they are to tell a safe adult as soon as possible,
  • that it is okay to say “no” to an adult if they feel threatened,
  • some skepticism. Adults who try to lure children try to snag their confidence or peak their curiosity or interest. So teach your kids not to take candy from strangers, not to help an adult find a puppy or kitten, and not to accept an offer for a ride even if it is from someone they “kinda” know. Teach them never to get close to a car if someone asks for directions. Emphasize that adults should not be asking kids for directions.
  • how to use the Kids Help phone number (1-800-668-6868) to talk confidentially about any issues that are bothering them. Post the number on the fridge.

Finally, reassure them that if they were taken from you, that you would never stop looking for them, no matter what.

Teach them well

Out of necessity, we teach our children safety rules – don’t touch the hot stove, don’t swim without a buddy and don’t pet strange dogs. Teaching them to be cautious about interactions with people they don’t know very well is another way to familiarize them with life’s rules and guidelines and help to ensure their safety in this aspect of their lives.

So teach them well. Then let them walk home from school with a friend and enjoy the thrill of newfound freedom from mom and dad as they reach into their teen years.


Safety Tips for Parents

1. Keep up-to-date photos of your child with current height and weight.
2. Know who your child plays with, their phone numbers and addresses.
3. Be cautious about your child’s safety in public places. For example, go into the bathroom and the change room at the pool or the bathrooms in stores, gas stations, etc.
4. Check to see if “Block Parents” is established in your community. Show your child the sign, knock on a door, and tell the block parent you are doing a practice run with your child. Talk with your child about situations in which she should go to a block parent.
5. Don’t predominantly display your child’s name on anything – this could allow someone to act familiar with your child by calling him by his name.
6. Practise all safety precautions with your child and role play – it will stick in her head longer than just talking about it.
7. Equip an older child with a cell phone to facilitate communication and to know his whereabouts.
8. Keep your eye on your child and don’t expect others to provide supervision for you in playgrounds and parks.
9. Be aware that sometimes parents are “groomed” by someone who wants to gain access to their children in a more intimate way. Be cautious if someone wants to take your child overnight or to an event to “give you a break”. While this may be a tempting invitation, be protective of your children and selective about whom you allow to do this.

Author: Debra Cockerton

Debra Cockerton is a writer, counsellor and workshop facilitator. She can be reached at deb_cockerton@hotmail.com.

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