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Teaching Your Kids Street Smarts

Here are some of the basic messages to teach your child once he starts venturing out on his own by foot or on a bicycle:

  • Stay in areas with other people around. Don't take short cuts through alleys, deserted parking lots, or vacant lots.
  • It's better to be with a friend or a group of friends than to travel alone.
  • Stay alert to your surroundings. Notice who is walking near you, particularly at your side or behind you. Be aware of places you could go to get help from an adult if need be.
  • Avoid going into a public restroom alone. If you must, take the stall nearest the door and exit promptly when you're finished.
  • Never talk to strangers. Adults don't need to ask for help or directions from children. Don't take things from them, either. Keep a distance of two arm lengths between you and strangers so you are out of grabbing reach.
  • Don't walk or ride your bike near parked cars.
  • Possessions can be replaced, but you can't be. If a bully threatens you on the way home from school, for example, be ready to drop your backpack or books if you have to run away.
  • Listen to your gut. If your instincts tell you something feels wrong, don't wait to find out if your fears are justified. Leave fast and go to a safe area that has adults around who can help.

Scenes from the Mall

Today's Main Street is the shopping mall, with its stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and arcades. It's a magnet for kids. Unfortunately, it also attracts assailants.

Tales from the Safety Zone

Parents have jammed Internet sites to find out if any of their neighbors is a convicted sex offender. When North Carolina set up its site, there were 340,000 visitors in the first month. Contacts were so numerous on Virginia's site, the state police had to get new equipment to double the capacity. Many states have statutes, patterned after New Jersey's “Megan's Law,” requiring that registries of violent sex offenders and their addresses be made public. The lists typically are available by mail, sometimes for a fee. Several states have made the information easier to obtain by posting it on the Internet despite protests from those who see this as an invasion of offenders' privacy.

When you determine that your child is mature enough to go to the mall without you, require her to be in the company of friends rather than going there alone. Drop kids off and pick them up in a well-lighted and populated area; a spot near the mall doors is much safer than in the parking lot. Give your child small bills and remind her not to flash her money around. Make sure she has coins for a phone call if she wants you to pick her up early.

Remind her that if her instincts tell her someone might pose a threat, she should speak to a security guard or store clerk. Better to be safe than sorry!

The People on the Bus

Kids in urban areas often use public buses or even subways to go to and from school. If your child feels he's ready to start riding public transportation, go with him the first time or two to make sure he's familiar with the stops and has safe places to wait.

Tell him to sit as close to the driver as possible and to pay attention so he doesn't miss his stop and end up someplace unfamiliar. Make sure he has coins to phone you if he misses the bus or train and will be late.

Talk to him about how to protect himself if someone bothers him, such as telling the person to stop in a voice loud enough to alert other passengers.

Don't Look Like a Victim

Kids may not realize they can avoid trouble just by the way they walk. Imagine a thief is sizing up people on the street to choose his next victim. Is he more likely to prey on someone who's staring down at her feet, who doesn't look directly at others, or who doesn't look likely to put up a fight? Or is he going to choose someone who walks confidently and whose body language says she's alert and observing the people and the scene around her?

Safety Savvy

Teach your kids that it's safer to walk on the side of the street where cars are coming toward them. It's easier for an assailant to stop his car and grab a child from behind since the child can't see what's going on in back of him unless he turns around.

Avoid Distractions

A child is more vulnerable if she's listening to a personal tape player through headphones or reading something while she walks. These distractions make it unlikely that she'll notice someone coming from behind.

Forget Miss Manners!

Kids want to be helpful; they don't want to appear impolite. They've probably seen their parents answer a question from a stranger or give directions. Children might encounter a homeless person asking for coins or a street vendor looking to make a sale.

Teach your child to say “no” (and sound as if she means it) while looking directly at the person and then moving on. She shouldn't apologize or worry about hurting someone's feelings. If she doesn't want to do this, she can walk briskly on without responding at all.

The same advice applies to encounters with strangers in places other than the street. If your youngster is taking an elevator, for example, when the door opens she should look at who's inside before entering; if she feels uncomfortable, she can wait for the next one. If she's worried about someone who gets on after her, she can push the button to get out at the next floor.

Anytime your child is in public and feels her safety is threatened, her best defense is to yell for help. Assailants understandably prefer not to attract attention.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Child Safety © 2000 by Miriam Bacher Settle, Ph.D., and Susan Crites Price. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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