Parents' top concerns and what you can do

Advice from 'The Safe Child Handbook.'


No matter how hard you try, you can’t eliminate all risk for your family. You can’t know all the actions that might make your family a little safer. Even if you could, you’d never find the time to accomplish such a Herculean task. You would only increase anxiety and fear in your children, your spouse, and yourself.

The solution lies in finding the fine line between action and acceptance, according to John Dacey and Lisa Fiore’s new book The Safe Child Handbook (Jossey-Bass, 2006). Departing from most family-safety advice givers, the authors emphasize that doing too much can be as dangerous as doing too little. Here is a sampling of their advice in eight areas that concern parents.

1. Weather

Of all the concerns for family safety, your chances of being affected by a weather emergency are among the highest.

A family emergency plan and disaster preparation make a lot of sense. At a minimum, collect what you need to survive for three days so that you can take it with you easily. A minimum list should include three gallons of drinkable water per person, three days’ worth of nonperishable foods, flashlights, radio, batteries, can opener, eating utensils, matches, a first aid kit, and blankets.

Keep some items in your car. Rotate water and food through everyday use, so you always have emergency supplies in reserve. Hide a stash of cash and refill your car’s gas tank frequently.

This is one area where it makes sense to study the long checklists from organizations like the Red Cross and fema and undertake a one-time all-out effort. Then assure yourself you’ve done what you can.

2. Abduction and Assault

Kidnapping is one of the most frightening threats for parents, yet it is not nearly as common as the media can make it seem. Family members are responsible for more than three-quarters of reported kidnappings, and the majority of all kidnapped children are returned alive and unharmed within hours or days. The risk of kidnapping by nonfamily members is greater for older girls than for boys and younger children.

Teach your children to scream loudly and run away if they feel in danger. Children who resist strongly and quickly and who understand the basics of sex are less likely to be abducted or assaulted.

Establish a family code word if you need to give a message to your child through another person, and emphasize to never accept a ride from a stranger, especially for teens.

Don’t force your children to embrace or be left alone with anyone they feel uncomfortable with. Children often have better intuitions about such situations than their parents.

3. Terrorism

Talk to children seven and older about what they know and think about terrorism. Encourage them to ask questions. Tell the truth about what you think about the risk of terrorism, without minimizing or exaggerating.

Older children may feel empowered by discussions about what to do to make society safer and what family members think about the use of force and conflict resolution.

Have a family discussion about what your family will do in an emergency—for example, how you could deal with an interruption of electricity and water. Decide on whom you will call and where you will meet if you are separated. Invite your children to list the emergencies that most concern them, and list what each of you can do to prepare.

4. Media

Be vigilant about what your children are viewing in the media—games, films, television. Harshly restricting viewing is not the answer, but do limit screen time. Try to be present when your child is watching television or surfing the net. Put all screens in high-traffic rooms, such as the kitchen or family room.

Invite your children to talk about the differences in the values they see in the media and those your family espouses. Explain that the Internet is absolutely transparent, and they shouldn’t do anything online they wouldn’t do with their parents present. Every now and then, like a pop quiz, review the history window with them. Buy daughters A Girl’s Life Online by Katherine Tarbox.

The only real safeguard is to look at the media that interest your children and get them to tell you what they think. As they explain their views, they’ll be better able to think through the issues clearly and to live the values you’ve taught them.

5. Drugs and Alcohol

The good news is that children who learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol from their parents are 42 percent less likely to use those substances and more likely to avoid other risky behaviors. Two-thirds of kids who do not use drugs say they refrain out of fear of losing their parents’ respect.

Let your kids know what you expect. Tell them they can use you as an excuse, as in: “My mom would kill me if she thought I smoked pot.” Talk to them about drugs and alcohol, the risks, and the myths promoted by drug dealers and alcohol marketers—without preaching or lecturing. Ask them to discuss what they think about current issues such as steroids in sports or advertising bans.

If you used drugs and alcohol when you were younger, you may feel like a hypocrite. If your children ask, be honest. You can explain that times were different. Research since you were young has shown how dangerous even occasional drug and alcohol use can be, especially for people with a genetic predisposition to addiction. Tell your children what led you to stop and that you feel lucky that you came to no harm.

6. Child Abuse

An estimated 15,000 convicted sexual offenders currently coach kids in out-of-school sports, often moving from town to town, according to Randy Rodebaugh, president of Southeastern Security Consultants, a company that screens youth-league coaches. The problem of abuse by adult leaders of extracurricular activities is comparable to the alleged abuses by Catholic priests, though it has not received nearly the media attention, says Robert Shoop, a sexual-abuse researcher at Kansas State University. Most of these abuse cases occur between male coaches and girls. Typically, the abusers are charming and talented men no one suspects, who pick victims who suffer from low self-esteem.

Talk to your children about whether they feel comfortable with teachers, coaches, and other adult leaders in their lives. Find out if those adults have had background checks. Talk to other parents if you suspect a problem. Make sure your children understand inappropriate behavior and how to say no. Abusers often leave alone a child who says, “Don’t do that,” at the first attempt.

7. School Violence

Don’t lose perspective when you hear ongoing news coverage of such tragedies as Columbine and the one-room Amish school in Pennsylvania last fall. Only 27 of the thousands of public and private schools in the country had school-related violent deaths in 2005-06, according to Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. The threat to your family is still quite small.

Find out if your school has a Safe School plan and whether your children understand it. Then focus your energy on protecting against more likely threats to family safety.

8. Home Safety

Entire industries have grown up around childproofing our homes, and parents should apply their consumer sense as well as their safety sense.

What house with children doesn’t have a raft of those little plastic electrical-outlet caps? Now child-safety experts say those aren’t such good safeguards. Small children are more likely to choke on them than to stick both fingers into an electrical socket—which is what’s necessary to receive a fatal shock. One finger in a socket will give them an unforgettable lesson.

Like weather preparedness, home safety is an area to make a major effort. Accidents at home kill more than 2,000 and injure more than 3 million children under age 14 each year, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign. Regularly review home-safety checklists, as your children grow older, and use your judgment as to which are real threats in your home.

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