AS MY FRIEND Janet and I walked our daughters home from school one afternoon, our 6-year-old daughters skipped ahead, lost in a game of ponies and princesses. At the end of the block, a grizzled man in layers of tattered clothing rose from his makeshift cardboard litter, swaying and swinging an empty bottle of alcohol.
The girls, oblivious, headed straight toward him. Before I could react, Janet called out in a firm voice: "Whitney, banana." Whitney grabbed my daughter's hand and the girls ran back to our side.
"Banana?" I asked.
"It's our code word," Janet explained. "Whitney and I both got tired of my constant lectures about street safety. Now, whenever I say banana, she knows not to mess around or argue and comes straight back to me."
For urban parents, finding ways to confront and explain today's perplexing social problems is a part of everyday survival. But a grim parade of headlines has made suburban and rural parents aware that no child is immune from danger. And no matter where they live, all parents wrestle with the question of how to raise a child who is savvy but not hard-hearted; cautious but not fearful.
"How do I make my child aware of the very real dangers out there without scaring her half to death?" asked one mother at a recent parents' round table discussion in New York City. "And how do I instill a little healthy wariness toward street people and other strangers without killing her sense of compassion?"
There is no prescription for how and what to tell your child to ensure his safety. And there is no easy answer to how to make your child aware of the world around him without robbing him of his innocence. But it is important to arm your child with as much information as possible so he will be able to cope with whatever dangers he may encounter.
"What scares kids is not drug pushers and child snatchers," says Officer Tom Clavin of the New York Police Department's Crime Prevention Department. "It's not knowing what to do."
Street safety should be taught to children in much the same way as they are taught to brush their teeth, according to Valerie Monroe, author of "CityKids"; it should be a natural part of the experience of growing up. "Savvy doesn't come from what you tell your child right before he goes out alone for the first time," says Monroe, "It starts in the stroller."
A solemn lecture on the dangers that may lurk on the route to and from school will send children the message that this is indeed scary stuff. But incorporating useful information about busy intersections or odd-looking people into your daily discussions about your child's surroundings will give him the sense that these are manageable situations like any other.
All this preparation is really an extended rehearsal for the inevitable moment when your child wants to leave the house alone. This passage, according to most parents, is traumatic -- for the parents. "You have to confront your own fears and you may realize that some of them are extreme or irrational; but they matter nonetheless," says Joyce Reinitz, a psychiatric social worker in New York.
"It's important to let your child know what you're afraid of so they will understand -- and abide by -- your request that they be home by the appointed time or that they call you when they reach their destination," Reinitz says.
"It's also worth remembering that a child's fears might be different from the parent's," she says. "A child might be afraid of walking on grates or taking a particular route home. Parents and children have to honor and respect each other's fears."
Many parents worry that such a frank discussion of their own fears might lead children to see the world as an evil, scary place. But shielding children from reality is no solution.
"To bury your head in the sand and say, 'My child could not be a victim' is to do your child a disservice," says John Walsh, whose son, Adam, disappeared from a South Florida shopping center in 1981. "You owe it to your child to give him the appropriate information."
Sharing information may also be the best way to nurture your child's natural sense of compassion. Researchers have determined that young children tend to think that people who look odd are bad; they also tend to assume that homeless people have done something bad or wrong to wind up in such dreadful circumstances.
"If you explain that people who look strange are not necessarily threatening, your child may come away with a better understanding of the homeless man or woman he passes," says Reinitz. And if you talk about the various causes of homelessness, your child may be able to distinguish between a person with an addiction problem and someone who is down on his luck, she says.
The best way for a child to cultivate his own street smarts, however, is to help him learn to trust his instincts. "If someone makes a child feel uncomfortable, parents have to respect those feelings, even if it means putting aside your own feelings of embarrassment," says Reinitz.