Last week at the elementary school located directly behind my middle school, a cafeteria worker was assaulted when she arrived at her usual time of 5:30 a.m. Her attacker was clearly trying to abduct her. She suffered a broken wrist, but put up enough of a fight not to have been taken. The arrival of a coworker sent the perp running. He has not yet been apprehended, or even identified, for that matter.
This was a chilling occurrence, because now teachers at both schools are now on high alert. Many of us stay late in the evenings or come in to work in our classrooms on the weekends; I’ve left my building through the back door of my hallway after dark on many occasions.
I’m no ninja, but I have enough confidence in the “kick ass and be scared later” techniques that my Mommy Lady, who was once a military police officer, started teaching me when I was as young as five. Now that I’m the mom and I have kids of my own, I’m passing down what I learned to the Minions. If you haven’t yet thought about equipping your kids with some personal safety strategies, here some good starting points:
1. Use a family code word or phrase.
This is your family’s “safe” word. At times when you are not with your child, this word is used to let your kids know that a particular person can be trusted. There are a couple of scenarios in which your code word can be useful:
- When your kids are home alone – your kids know not to open the door for ANYONE — not even YOU — if they don’t know the code word.
- If you need to send someone else to pick up your kid – child abductors like to use the “Your Mom/Dad sent me to pick you up” ploy, but what happens if you really are in a position in which you need to send someone semi-known or completely unknown by your kids to go pick them up from somewhere? Your kids can know that they are in the presence of a trusted, safe adult if they can give the family code word when he or she goes to get your child.
True story: way back when I was 9, in the pre-cell phone olden days of 1987, some long-forgotten, unexpected event happened that warranted my mom sending a family friend to come pick me up from my Girl Scout meeting. I knew exactly who she was; I had been a flower girl in her wedding, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t expect to see her there, and when I asked her the code word was, she got a confused look on her face and couldn’t tell me because mom had forgotten to tell her. I kept my happy butt right there with my troop leader and told the friend that she’d have to go get the code word from my mom before I would leave with her. After a couple more minutes of gentle prodding, she realized that I wasn’t going anywhere until she said the code word. She left, came back 15 minutes later, and said, “Brownie.” Satisfied, I hopped right in the car. Mama trained me well.
Update: My friend Pam gave me the link to this article on Facebook: Code word helps girl, 10, avoid possible abduction. This is a perfect example of how a family code word helps your kids avoid dangerous situations. Notice, also, that because she was aware of her surroundings (Tip #2 below), the young girl was able to give a good description of the perpetrator, his vehicle, and a possible accomplice.
2. Show your kids how to be aware of their surroundings.
The last thing we want is for our kids to be paranoid of everyone they cross paths with, but there is great value in teaching kids to pay attention to people and the details about them. Height? Eye color? Race? Gender? Clothing? Unique features like tattoos and piercings? Your kid may one day need to fend off and later identify an attacker or might be a witness to a crime. It’s easy for kids and adults alike to be so focused on playing, shopping, etc that identifying details blend unnoticed into the periphery.
Learning to really notice people and locations takes practice, but it grows into an easy habit once you’ve done it for a while. The next time you’re out with your kids, make it like a game. Ask things like, “Did you notice the lady who just passed us? Can you describe her hair? The car ahead of us just turned right; what color was it?” This gets your kids into the habit of paying attention to people and things. You never know when they might need to recall important details about some freak who tried to make a grab for them.
3. Teach your kids what to do if someone tries to snatch them.
It’s every parent’s nightmare. Pretending like it can’t happen to us doesn’t decrease the risk, but equipping our kids with knowledge of what to do in that scenario DOES. This is what my mom taught me when I was a kid:
- If you’re with a group of friends and stranger forcibly tries to take you or a friend, one runs as fast as they can to get help. Knock on random doors if you have to. The others stay behind and scream, fight, scratch, and yell for help.
- If you’re with just one friend and a stranger tries forcibly to take you or your friend, you both stay and fight like hell. Yell for help.
- If you’re alone, fight like hell and scream.
- In each of the above cases, yelling is involved. Panicked, high-pitched screaming is better than no screaming at all. However, it is more effective for children to yell, “THIS IS NOT MY MOM/DAD! I’M BEING KIDNAPPED!” The reason? Bystanders are quick to assume that a tugging parent plus a screaming child equals a parent dealing with a temper tantrum. A child who has the presence of mind to identify an attacker as not being a parent increases the chances that others will come to his or her rescue.
4. Learn and teach basic self-defense maneuvers.
Do you know the most vulnerable body parts? How to punch with the greatest impact? How to stand in a solid defensive posture? How to break out of certain body holds? I did by the time I was eight. It is never too early to start teaching your kids how to defend themselves. If you don’t know self-defense strategies already, there are many resources available. Check with your local law enforcement agency, health department, or hospital to see if there are classes offered. There is also an abundance of online resources, to include YouTube. Here is one article I found that explains many of the basic strategies that my mom taught me: 8 How-To Self-Defense Techniques Kids Should Know.
Practice, practice, practice. Be the attacker, and let the kids kick your butt. Frank and I get beat down on the regular. In all seriousness, we do have little sparring “what if” matches. I’ve seen 7-year-old Kaelyn take Frank out at the knees and ankles on many occasions.
5. Teach them that not all predators are strangers who attack in violent ways.
If your kid is only looking out for the unknown person who grabs and grunts, then your child might not realize they’re being set up to be victimized if the predator is a smooth talker who uses kindness and flattery to gain the advantage. Over 70% of violent or sexual crimes against children are committed by someone who is known. Many times, the kids don’t realize that something is wrong until it’s too late, or they aren’t equipped with knowledge about how to extract themselves from uncomfortable situations.
When I was 12, there was an incident at the neighborhood swimming pool in which I’m sure I would have been sexually assaulted by a friend’s uncle. However, I’d been taught warning signs, how to trust my own instincts, and exit strategies. Because I had that knowledge, I didn’t panic (much). I kept my wits about me, got myself the hell out of there, and told mom. She called the police, who came out and took a statement from me. Before they left, she told them, “You’d better find him before I do.” Being a gangsta? I got it honestly.
BONUS: Don’t tell your kids that it can’t happen to them.
Predators aren’t the boogeymen under the bed. Predators are real, so we must be realistic in our approach to teaching our kids about the potential dangers of the world. The idea is not to make our children fearful; it is to empower them with knowledge so that in the rare chance that they are in jeopardy, they have an existing knowledge base to fall back on.
It’s difficult to imagine scenarios in which our kids might have to actually use these strategies, but that is exactly what these precautions are used for — for those terrifying circumstances that hurt us just to think about.
What have you taught your kids about personal safety? What were you taught as a child? Are there any things that you know and do as an adult?