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How we can protect our kids, without scaring them

The dramatic events unfolding in Cleveland this week have drawn attention to abduction prevention, and how to talk to your kids about it without freaking them out.
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Neil Hedley, May 7, 2013 5:03:57 PM

How’d you spend your lunch hour?  I spent a chunk of mine looking blankly into a television camera, completely stumped by a question I got from Sandie Rinaldo today on CTV News Channel.  We were talking about the unbelievable events of the past 24 hours in Cleveland, Ohio, where three women who’d been missing for ten years had finally gained their freedom, and had escaped from their kidnapper.  Sandie asked me what the first question was that I would ask these women, and I was completely stymied.

Despite being in the media for more than thirty years, I had no idea what I’d ask, and couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around it.  Similarly, I don’t know how we’re supposed to know as parents, what we’re supposed to do in order to make sure that our kids don’t ever become victims of this kind of tragedy.  Somehow, to me, this goes way beyond, “Don’t talk to strangers.”

Thankfully, Tim Burrows knows what to do.  Tim’s an incredible resource with things like this because he’s not only in law enforcement, but he’s also a great Dad.

“Being in law enforcement, you realize that there are bad people in this world,” Tim says.  “And being a parent, you want to protect your children from these bad people until they get to a point where they can protect themselves.  The reality is that because of these bad people, children need to be prepared for every eventuality, and as a parent it’s your prime responsibility to prepare them.”

Tim and his wife have taken the idea of “Don’t talk to strangers” one step further.  “What we’ve done with our kids, and the most simple thing you can do, is we’ve role-played with them,” he offers.  “We explained to them, in their terms, this is what bad people will try to do sometimes.  And we parked at the side of the road, or even in our driveway, and tried to encourage them to come closer to the car as someone they didn’t know who was asking for directions, or showing them a puppy, or offering them money or candy.”  While on the one hand, Tim says the kids might see it as a game, “put them in that experience and when push comes to shove, hopefully they remember it and remember what they’re supposed to do.”

And what are they supposed to do?  “Never get up close, never approach,” says Tim.  “If they keep their distance, and the person really wants to do what they want to do, they’ll have to get out of the car.  And that means drawing attention to themselves, which no one who would perpetrate this kind of thing wants to do.”

Indeed, the desire of a “bad person” to avoid attention can also be the best weapon a child – or anyone else facing possible abduction – can use against their attacker.  Especially, Tim says, in what many parents would consider the worst-case scenario where someone simply walks up and grabs them.  “Scream. Kick. Do everything they can to bring attention to themselves.  We’ve all heard that scream from our child – the scream that goes right through us.  That’s the scream we have to teach our kids to do anytime they’re touched by someone they don’t know.”

And when it came time to role-playing with their own kids, Tim and his wife even included the screaming.  “That part we did inside the house,” he says.  “We made a game of it – who can make the biggest noise, who can scream the loudest, who can draw the most attention to themselves.  And let them find their own word. One of the biggest attention-getting words, besides ‘Help’, is ‘Fire’.  Everybody tries to find fire.”

Tim’s also concerned about blanket terms like “stranger danger”.  ”Police officers, first responders, firefighters – for most kids, those people are strangers, too,” he says.  ”So by teaching them ‘stranger danger’, you’re teaching them to be afraid of those people, too.”

Of course, for many parents, there’s the desire to teach the lesson without inducing panic and making their kids freak out.  In that vein, Tim’s no different, but the law enforcement side of this Dad has taught him to look at it differently.  “They learn from what they see.  I’ve been asked for directions and I use the same principles I teach them – for someone you don’t know, don’t approach, step back and keep your distance.  And they’ll learn, over time, that not every situation is worth a panic.  I’d much rather my child would be a little freaked out over someone approaching them than not be worried about it at all.”

MORE THOUGHTS FROM NEIL HEDLEY:

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