Safety vs Independence

- Joellen Monson

With all the recent news stories about child abduction, parents could understandably begin to think that Rapunzel's mom may have been onto a good thing with that tower sanctuary. While there are over 800,000 children reported missing nationwide, most children are returned home safely. The number of abductions by strangers (which are the most dangerous type) remains rare but are the ones most highlighted in the media. Actually the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children notes that the number of these cases has been dramatically reduced over the past decades (100 annually currently versus 200-300 in the 1980's).

No one wants to be a statistic, so it is crucial that you include safety skills as a routine part of ongoing skill development for your children. You may be thinking that you have spoken to your child about this topic before, perhaps when they began walking and running (away) from you when they were toddlers. However, the way we approach any topic as our children mature needs to take into account their continual growth and maturity levels. So how do you know what is appropriate at any given age?

All too often parents presume that young children understand more than they actually do. Emotions come into play in any situation and children's emotional development is chronological - no matter how bright the child, you can't skip developmental stages like you might skip grades in school. When it comes to safely responding to an emergency, it is more than just an intellectual series of actions.

There is an incredible variation in logical comprehension between a five year old and that of a ten year old (the age range covered by articles). A leading expert in the field of child development, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), was one of the most influential researchers in the area of developmental psychology during the 20th century. He describes the elementary and early adolescence (7-12 years old) as the "Concrete Operational Stage". Prior to this time, children's thinking is still egocentric meaning they have difficulty taking the viewpoint of others. Beginning around 7 years old, intelligence is increasingly shown through logical and systematic use of objects and events. They grow in their understanding of the world in concrete views (what they can see, touch, hold) to thinking logically about abstract ideas where they make and test hypotheses systematically. Even at 12, a child's ability to think in theoretical terms is primitive and doesn't fully develop until the later teen years. (That's why there are so many teen automobile accidents - the reasoning processes are just not firmly locked into their developing emotional make up.)

But in our society, children from 5-10 years old are showing signs that they want to assert their independence more and more. They see TV characters behaving independently and some of their friends may be allowed to do things without adult supervision. Many parents can eagerly look forward to their child's (and therefore their own) increased freedom - less childcare costs, the luxury of getting shopping done child fee and many other reasons can push families to make decisions prematurely.

Many states have no legal age regulations for how old a child can be left alone. You've probably witnessed children anywhere from 4-6 years old left alone in the car while their parents dashed in the Starbucks for a cup of coffee to go, or darted in to pay the gas station attendant while their children are left alone to wait in the car.

Our word of advise is - DON'T - no matter how quickly you'll be returning or how inconvenient it is to get them out of the car. Remind yourself - How would I feel if something did happen? It is still one of our primary jobs as parents to keep our children safe. We suggest that a child not be left alone, even for brief errands until at least age 10 or 11, and even then it depends on the child. Many community hospitals begin offering safety and babysitting classes for children beginning at age 11. These deal with many of the basics of how to handle an emergency situation. Knowledge is power and practice helps keep skills in our memory.

Providing skills in a way that children can handle and understand is critical. The information you told them as a toddler needs to be updated as they grow older. They need to have some resources that have been exercised over and over again to lock into their consciousness. An excellent online resource for guidelines to how to handle situations with strangers is the FBI. They provide pointers on the topics to review with children and ways to explain information to them.

Some final tips are to ensure that from an early age, children are told that it's important for them to listen to their bodies. If they get a bad feeling about being around someone (even if it's Aunt Zoie on Thanksgiving), let them know that it's OK to choose not to be around them. Advise them that anyone who wants them to keep secrets from you can be told "We don't keep secrets in our family." As a parent, keep ID in your child's backpack for school, you should also keep current ID information about each of your children - that you or your spouse carry all the times. Included in the ID should be their name (and nickname), current photo (with date), description of hair and eye color plus weight and height statistics. Any special birthmarks or scars should be noted as well as any medical alert information. Your address and phone contact information should be highlighted. This type of information may make the difference if your child is lost and you need to quickly get information out to local authorities.

When it comes to our precious children, an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.