When I was a child, back in the last millennium, child safety advice consisted of four words that all my friends and I had impressed upon us: “Don’t talk to strangers.”


Our parents believed telling us that would keep us safe, and we did too. We never talked about what a “stranger” looked or acted like, or the fact that someone we didn’t think of as a stranger might do us harm. We really weren’t taught what to do if we did find ourselves in danger, or what to do afterward.


Fortunately, the conversation about child safety has evolved.  Today in The Motherhood, Kidpower safety experts Irene van der Zande  and Dr. Amy Tiemann (Mojo Mom), along with panelists Amy McCready, Linda Criddle, and Renee Trudeau , talked about empowering our kids to stay safe and confident, both online and in the real world.



Why “Don’t Talk to Strangers” Isn’t Enough


Linda Criddle presented a sobering statistic: Over 90% of exploitation is by someone the child knows. That’s why, Dr. Amy Tiemann said, the emphasis must be on making the distinction between appropriate, safe behavior and unsafe behavior, no matter who someone is. Irene van der Zande urged that “kids need skills” to deal with whatever dangerous situations they might encounter. She offered these five basic rules for kids to remember:


  1. Use your awareness.
  2. Check and think first.
  3. Move out of reach of trouble.
  4. Set boundaries.
  5. Be persistent in getting help.


“The fear of being rude can hold us back from being safe.”

As a child, were you ever urged forward by a parent to hug or kiss a relative when you really didn’t feel like it? I was, and I admit to having done the same with my own kids; it’s important to me, and to a lot of parents, that our kids be polite, that they respect their elders.


The problem is that emphasizing politeness in that way can teach kids to discount their own feelings of discomfort, that intuition that tells them that a situation may not be safe. Dr. Amy Tiemann says, “Politeness can be a stumbling block to acting in our own safety interest. I love Kidpower’s founding principle, ‘Safety is more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense – your own or someone else’s.'”


And let’s face it: most adults who have kids’ best interests at heart would understand that, or could be helped to understand.  Dr. Amy Tiemann reminds us, “If you can get aunts, uncles, grandparents, to be allies in respecting boundaries, that is very helpful. This can be a touchy subject sometimes but if we can let grandparents know it’s not personal about them, but teaching kids that we respect their boundaries, we’re really all on the same side.”


Irene says that a child can be taught to respond to unwanted hugs and kisses by saying, “I like you, and I don’t want to hug you right now.” Also, a child can offer alternatives to a hug, “No, thanks! But I’ll show you my rabbit!” These are some simple ways we can help a child maintain his or her boundaries without being rude.  Irene advises, “Having parental backup and practice makes all the difference in the ability to use a skill in real life.”


Having the “Big Talk,” and Other Mistakes


Renee Trudeau asked the rest of the panel, “What are some of the most common missteps you see … when it comes to talking about or teaching boundaries?” Irene responded, “Parents either make the topic scary or avoid it. Kids don’t need to know details of how they might be harmed – they just need to know what to do.” Amy McCready and Dr. Amy Tiemann concurred that having one “big talk” about safety is both more frightening and less effective than weaving the topic into everyday conversations and making it an ongoing dialogue.


Linda Criddle added that by emphasizing “stranger danger,” we neglect to let our kids know that no one has the right to touch them in certain ways. Irene helpfully offered a way to help kids think about touch: “Kidpower teaches that touch for play, teasing, and affection should be a choice, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and never a secret! Touch for health and safety is sometimes NOT a child’s choice, but is never, ever a secret,” and Dr. Amy Tiemann offered the following rules to share with kids:




Your private areas are the parts of your body that can be covered by a bathing suit. For play or teasing, other people should not try to touch your private areas and they should not try to get you to touch their private areas.


Sometimes adults need to touch your private areas for health or safety, but this should never be a secret.


People should not show you pictures in magazines, or on the computer, or in movies about people touching their private areas.


The beauty of these rules: they are clear, they are definite, and they are simple enough for even small kids to understand.


Safety as a Collaborative Effort


I loved what Linda Criddle had to say about working together with our kids to keep them safe:  “Safety isn’t something you can effectively impose on anyone over the age of ten. Effective safety is something families do together because everyone has a vested interest in being safe. If youth don’t buy into your family’s safety goals they’ll quickly find ways around them. Fortunately, youth have a basic sense of self preservation most of the time. They don’t want to be had or ripped off or abused by some scammer, thief, or other type of predator. ” If we can tap into that sense, and work with it, we can help our kids develop the skills they need.



Knowledge is Power: More Resources


Doing Right By Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at all Levels of Society (to the right of the page, you can sign up to get the “Talking About Touch and Boundaries” Starter Kit)




Dr. Amy Tiemann’s blog post, “No Forced Kisses for Your Kids