Teaching Kids Street Smarts

The world can be a frightening place, especially for parents who are watching, as someone once put it, “our hearts walking around outside our bodies.” While we may be quaking with fear, it’s our job to teach our kids about safety without making them quake with fear.

Rather than lecturing kids about the dangers that lurk around every corner, here are some positive lessons you can share with your kids.

For parents with children birth to age 5

  • Your body is your own. Not just the private parts, but your whole body. Think before you force a small child to hug or kiss a relative when he or she is reluctant. While you want to demonstrate loving physical affection, you don’t want to send the message that kids don’t get to choose who touches them.
  • Dial 911. These days, if you don’t have a landline you may also have to show the kids where you keep your cell phone (always in the same spot!) and how to unlock it. Without going into specifics, you can tell kids this is a number that gets help if something is really, really wrong.
  • No means no. This is a little different from the anti-rape message. With kids this age, you want to be sure that they know “no” means “stop right away, every time.” Some parents reserve “no” for dangerous situations (like reaching for a flame) and use another message, like “that’s not okay,” for other behaviors (like hitting a sibling). This can help your toddler learn to stop unsafe behaviors right away, rather than thinking — as we know they all do — “Hm, I wonder if Mommy is going to say that again? I guess I’ll find out.”

Tips for parents with children ages 6–9

  • Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut. You can teach your kids to trust their own instincts by trusting yours. If they’re not excited for their first sleepover — even if you’re sure it’s perfectly safe — don’t override their fears. Say, “Okay, this doesn’t feel right. You can go to the next sleepover when you’re ready.”
  • Get back up on the horse. The first thing you learn in skating, cycling, and horseback riding is how to fall. The second thing you learn is how to get back up. Fear can keep some kids this age from trying new things. Your job isn’t to tell them they won’t fall (they will), but to hug and kiss them when they do.
  • Bad things do happen. This is a tough message to teach. You don’t want to bombard your kids with fears, but you don’t want them to be blindsided when the world gets tough. When bad things do happen — someone gets sick or dies, someone loses their job, or a natural disaster hits close by — don’t hide it from your kids. Talk about how it’s okay to feel sad or scared, but your family is there to take care of each other.

[Related article: When Bad Things Happen: Tips for Breaking Bad News to Kids.]

Tips for parents with children ages 10–15

  • Explore, within limits. Kids this age are starting to navigate the world on their own. One of the best ways to encourage exploration is to set limits, as paradoxical as it sounds. Set strict age-appropriate, geographical, and time limits (“You can explore this end of the mall on your own, but don’t go past Sears and meet me here in half an hour.”) that expand as your child’s world expands. Exploring on their own helps kids develop good instincts and safe behaviors.
  • Be willing to stand up to — and for — your friends. Kids can help keep each other safe. Sometimes that means telling a friend not to do something dangerous. Sometimes it means telling a parent when a friend is in trouble. Talk about this with other parents so that you can create a community of strong, safe kids.
  • The same rules apply online as off-line. We do a pretty good job of teaching our kids about safety “in the real world”: Don’t talk to strangers, respect your body, explore within limits, look out for your friends. You’d think the Internet would complicate things, but it really doesn’t. The same rules apply. Tell them you expect them to be the same person on the Internet that they are in real life and to follow the same rules.

[Related: Free Webinar: Teaching Kids to Be Good Digital Citizens.]

Tips for parents with children age 15 and up

  • Don’t be a show-off. Teenagers’ adult-sized bodies and still developing brains can be a deadly mix. Terrible tragedies have happened when teenagers have taken risks with their bodies, cars, guns, or drugs. You can talk to your kids about individual risks, but you can also help them understand a more general lesson: You don’t have anything to prove. Not to yourself, not to your friends. Always stop and ask yourself, “Is this worth it?”
  • You can always talk to me, at any time, about anything. As our kids continue to grow, so do our worries. Let your kids know that you will help shoulder some of their troubles, especially ones that might lead them to make unsafe decisions. And if they don’t want to talk to you, make sure they have other caring, safe adults in their lives to talk to.