The Ultimate Parent’s Guide to Teaching Personal Safety at Home

June 11, 2018

The Ultimate Parent’s Guide to Teaching Personal Safety at Home

Preschoolers are active, curious and trusting – that’s what makes them so wonderful!  Those same characteristics, however, can inadvertently put a child in harm’s way. 

At Kid Spa Austin, we begin teaching toddlers and preschoolers how to make safe and healthy choices.  But, of course, we know that classroom instruction isn’t enough.  Children need clear and consistent messaging from their parents, family and community members as well. 

The good news is that safety lessons don’t have to be taught in a formal setting.  In fact, everyday life is the best place for children to practice making safe choices! 

Ready to learn how?  Well then, let’s begin…

Start With an Effective Approach

As much as we would like to, we cannot always be with our children.  At the tender age of 5, most children will begin public school and from there on, children begin to make most of their important decisions outside of their parents’ purview. 

So… how can we teach children to make safe and healthy choices? 

A successful approach takes into account that children will encounter many situations that their parents and teachers cannot anticipate.  It also recognizes that a child’s physical and emotional environment is sometimes beyond our control.  Consequently, every method and message we teach must be versatile and robust.  The safety curriculum we developed prioritizes simplicity, planning and ample opportunity for practice.

Simple Instructions

One of the fundamental components for safety instruction is developing simple messages that can be applied in many situations.  Simple messages also provide consistency for children who might otherwise get conflicting advice from teachers and family members. 

A great example of good messaging is the phrase, “Stop, drop and roll.”  As adults, we know that there is less smoke near the ground.  We also know that fire requires oxygen to burn.  This is helpful information and can help to solidify an understanding of existing concepts.  However, when working with children and young adults, it is never safe to assume that a person has prior knowledge of the subject matter.  A simple message is also needed to reliably achieve the desired outcome — even when a child lacks advanced reasoning skills.

Planning and Preparation

George Washington is quoted as saying:

  • “Judgement is a fine commodity, but it is virtually useless in the thick of battle!”

The wisdom behind these words is that emergency situations require quick action.  There is no time to make careful, informed decisions.  Therefore, we must help children think through unsafe situations ahead of time.  For instance, in the case of severe weather, children are taught to seek shelter and stay away from windows.  But, which room is the safest?  Which household items are needed, and where are these items located in the home? 

By answering detailed questions like these, children must imagine themselves following the correct safety protocol.  This forces them to actively interpret the information and apply it to their individual surroundings.  Through this process, the child forms a visual memory of safety procedures.  This allows children to act quickly and improves their ability accurately recall information.

Practice Makes Perfect

It is common to hear coaches and professional athletes say, “You have to practice the way you want to play.”  In sports, that means building muscle memory so that the player’s body does what it is supposed to do – without taking brainpower away from the game itself.

The same concept holds true for teaching kids to make good decisions.  Their response should be automatic.  As parents and educators, we must think of ourselves as coaches… we do not get to recruit new players or change the rules of the game.  We have to patiently work with each of our players until they get it right.  AND… we have to give children opportunities to practice their skills on a regular basis.

If we approach unsafe behavior the same as a coach approaches poor technique, we naturally respond in a way that allows children to practice the correct behavior.  For example, let’s consider a scenario in which two playmates are slamming a door for fun.  First, the unsafe behavior must be stopped.  Then, the caregiver would ask: “What is the rule about playing with doors?  Why do we have this rule?”  After the child responds affirmatively, the caregiver may assist the child in practicing an appropriate and safe behavior. 

This kind of repetition and reinforcement takes time.  However, the time invested pays off when children begin to independently assess their environment and regulate their own behavior accordingly. 

Kids DO Listen to Their Parents

A few years ago, a man named Joey Salads conducted a social experiment to demonstrate how easily children can be abducted by a stranger in plain sight.  In the experiment, Joey visited a neighborhood park and asked parents if they had taught their children not to talk to strangers.  The parents answered emphatically YES, and then Joey proceeded to casually befriend the children and lead them out of the park.

The alarming takeaway of the study is that children are incredibly vulnerable, even when their parents were diligent and proactive about teaching safety.  So, where did they go wrong?  As for the rest of us, how can we possibly keep our children safe if they won’t listen to us? 

Before attempting to answer these questions, we must first recognize the deceptive assumption that children do not listen to their parents.  The children in this experiment had been reminded DAILY that they should “Never talk to strangers.”  Whether these children listened to their parents the first time or fiftieth time, at some point they knew the rule. 

That means that the problem was not with the children or the parents.  The problem was in the message itself.  After Joey began talking to a child, the child had to weigh the “stranger” rule against good manners and respect for adults.  From this perspective, it is apparent that even though children knew the rule, they were not able to interpret and apply it correctly. 

The takeaway here is… Don’t give up!  Kids can be taught to make safe choices and they really do listen to their parents.  We just have to fix the message.

Say What You Want Them TO DO

As educators, we are often reminded to teach children what they should do instead of telling them what not to do.  In the book, Parenting with Dignity, Mac Bledsoe explains the concept quite simply:

  • “If you don’t continually focus on consciously telling kids what you want them to do, you can get caught spending all of your time telling them what not to do!  The more kids you have and the more active they are, the greater the likelihood of getting caught in this trap of ineffectiveness.”

The common example given is to say, “Walking feet, please!” rather than “No running!”  In teacher training, instructors explain that children may only hear part of what you say.  From a practical perspective, hearing the word “walk” is more instructive than hearing the word “run”.   Speaking in the positive reduces processing steps, so a children can respond more quickly.  (ie: When a child hears “walk”, they only need one cognitive processing cycle.  Conversely, when a child hears “no running”, the child has to imagine running and then think of an alternative to running.)  Last, in the event that a child does not hear every word said, it is better for them to hear the word “walk” rather than the word “run”.

“Telling and Asking” a Trusted Grown-Up

A simple and consistent message that can be taught to young children is:

Tell and ask a trusted grown-up.

Some reasons this rule works when others fail are:

  • 1.)  It ensures that adults are informed.
  • 2.)  It places the responsibility of decision-making on the adult rather than the child.
  • 3.)  It provides parents with an opportunity to coach children through the decision-making process.

Consider again the social experiment where a man was able to lead children out of a neighborhood park.  If the children had been taught to “tell and ask”, the parents would have been alerted to the presence of an unknown person.  In a real-life scenario, the mere presence of an alert adult might also have been enough to discourage the would-be abductor. 

Next, the “tell and ask” approach prevents children from trying to handle dangerous situations alone.  This is an advantage in situations where children are at risk for misjudging a situation.  In the case of strangers, children may let their guard down if the new person seems nice.  Or, they may decide that a person is no longer a stranger if they know the person’s name.  The virtue of the “tell and ask” approach is that it places emphasis on getting help from a more knowledgeable and experienced person. 

Last, the ultimate goal of all parenting and education is to raise independent adults, who make safe and healthy decisions on their own.  The best way to ensure kids are ready for adult responsibilities is to allow them to practice with small decisions and gradually take on bigger decisions.  When kids use the “tell and ask” approach, adults are able to offer the right level of support and children can grow into new responsibilities as they are ready.

Opportunities for Practice

There are many day-to-day opportunities for children to practice using the “tell and ask” rule.  With regular and continued exposure, children are able to form a habit of making safe choices.

Telling a Grown-Up

Children should be taught to always tell parents if they see something unsafe or out-of-the-ordinary.  Some everyday examples are… a wet floor, a new anthill in the yard, a kitchen knife left out on the table.  These small exercises in critical thinking remind children to be aware of their surroundings and inform an adult when necessary.  (And yes, there will be false alarms.  That is okay!)

Asking Permission

In addition to “telling”, children must learn to always ask permission before interacting with new people, going places or offering/accepting food and gifts.  The “asking” rule should be followed among other children, trusted adults and even family. 

  • 1.) Interacting with New People
  • Interacting with new people often involves animals, toys and babies.  A child may want to pet a dog they encounter in the neighborhood.  Children should be reminded to ask the dog’s owner for permission, to make sure that it is safe and also, to be respectful toward the owner.  Likewise, other people’s toys and babies require permission before touching or handling.
  • 2.) Going Places
  • Going somewhere might include playing in a neighbor’s backyard, going into the garage to get a flashlight or taking a walk with a grandparent around the neighborhood.  While a child may confidently assume that their regular caregiver approves, they should still ask permission and inform others about their plans.  Not only is this a good safety measure, but it can also prevent miscommunication among busy parents and family members.
  • 3.) Accepting/Offering Food and Gifts
  • Your child should know that they have to ask permission before offering or accepting food and gifts – to and from anyone!  Young children may have allergies or other dietary reasons to avoid certain foods.  It could also prevent a child from spoiling their appetite or ruining a surprise.  Over time, children also learn to be cautious of people and situations where they might be physically or emotionally separated from caring adults.

Start Coaching!

Now it’s time to start using the “tell and ask” method in your home.  If this article was helpful to you, please share it with friends, family and neighbors.  Together, we can help all children learn to reliably make safe choices… at home or anywhere!

 

About the Author

Jamie Morrissey is co-owner of Kid Spa Austin and holds a BS in Electrical Engineering. Jamie's beliefs regarding early childhood development are heavily influenced by her background in science and technology, and personal studies in psychology.

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