What parents can do to keep their children out of harm's way

November 15, 1993|By Debra Kent | Debra Kent,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Last summer on a sunny afternoon, 4-year-old Colin Cowley suddenly put the brakes on his speeding bicycle so that he could chat with an elderly gentleman strolling down the street. "I was too far away to hear their conversation," recalls his mother, Susan Pelzer of New York, "but I noticed that it ended abruptly when the man shrugged his shoulders and walked on."

"Mom, I asked that man if he knew me, and he said no," Colin explained when his mother caught up with him. "So I told him my mom said I shouldn't talk to strangers."

So much for Ms. Pelzer's many painstaking explanations of the word stranger. "It was clear that in Colin's mind strangers constituted a job category," his mother says. "In fact, a few days later he declared that when he grows up, he wants to be 'an actor, a waiter, or maybe a stranger.' "

Both of Colin's comments made his mother laugh -- at first. But then she began to feel bewildered by the obvious failure of all her careful attempts to enlighten him about the potential dangers of strangers. It was only later that she realized, "My mistake was in assuming that Colin had understood and that he'd become stranger-savvy," Ms. Pelzer says.

Most young children can't grasp the subtleties that surround the issue of whom to trust. "In a preschooler's mind, someone who acts nice is nice," explains Dr. Thomas Power, associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Houston. "Preschoolers aren't cognitively capable of understanding that someone who appears to be friendly and kind may, in fact, be acting. They rarely think about motives or intentions; they go by what they see." Compounding the confusion is the fact that young children often notice their parents talking to strangers without any dire consequences.

Though preschoolers should never be left unsupervised, the reality is that at some time every parent will lose sight of her child, if only for a split second. We need to prepare our youngsters for those moments, and that's no easy task given the limits of the listeners.

Teaching a young child how to stay safe takes patience, persistence, and sensitivity; the real trick, after all, is to educate him without frightening him. And what you tell your child now about personal safety lays a foundation for how he will behave in the future -- when you relax your supervision as he becomes increasingly independent.

Here are some other strategies to help you get your point across:

* Tailor your tactics. If you're the parent of a gregarious 3-year-old who works a crowd as though she were running for public office, be clear, firm and emphatic when you talk to her about strangers, says Dr. John Bates, professor of clinical psychology and child development at Indiana University in Bloomington. Parents "need to adapt their communication styles the temperaments of their children," he adds.

How do you discuss the safety issue with a shy child? Matter-of-factly, advises Dr. Bates, who offers this illustration: "You can play in the yard with Mommy, but you can't play in the yard by yourself because that's just not the way we do it."

* Accentuate the positive. Instead of saying, "Never go in a car with strangers," you might tell your child exactly whom she can go with -- Mom, Dad and Grandma, for example.

And parents should think twice before flaunting that familiar warning, "Never talk to strangers," advises Dr. Dennis Embry, a clinical psychologist in Tucson, Ariz. In some circumstances, a stranger may be your child's ally. "If your child is lost in a store, for example, she may have no choice but to get help from a stranger like a security guard or a cashier," says Dr. Embry. "But if you've told her not to talk to someone she doesn't know, she may have no idea what to do."

* Test your child's responses. Because all preschoolers love stories, they'll happily help you conjure up tales in which they experience a brush with danger but ultimately stay safe. Hearing what your child would do if she lost sight of you in the supermarket, for example, might reveal what she's actually absorbed from your discussions.

And the next time you're giving your child a bath or are driving somewhere together, you might try playing the "what if" game. Ask questions such as, "What would you do if you ran ahead of Mommy and suddenly you couldn't see her?" or, "What would you do if the doorbell rang and Mom was in the bath?"

Again, your child's answers can help you determine what she needs to know, suggests Dr. Katharine Kersey, chair of the Department of Child Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of "Helping Your Child Handle Stress: The Parent's Guide to Recognizing and Solving Childhood Problems (Acropolis Books).

Raising a child who knows how to stay safe is partly a game of instilling confidence, and you're the key player. You want to help him grow into a child who trusts his instincts enough to negotiate many different kinds of situations. Here's how to start building self-assurance now:

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