From the moment our children enter this world, we feel an overwhelming animal instinct to protect them from danger. We child-lock cabinet doors, cut window blind cords, and buy everything from car seats to bath seats. We install it, prevent it, close it or lock it up to ensure our children are safe from harm. But how do you protect them from the big, bad world just outside the front door?
Every day, the television and the newspapers are filled with stories that strike fear in every parent’s heart—kidnapping, molestation, child abuse, rape. While it may be tempting to think it’s not in our backyard, statistics suggest otherwise.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 15 percent of rape victims are under the age of 12. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys are victims of sexual abuse.
It’s not difficult to find a list of the signs indicating child abuse or molestation. The faces of missing children are in stores, on flyers in your mailbox and on the television. While that information is terribly useful and important, I don’t know about you, but I want to stop the train long before it ever gets down that track.
But how do you prevent your child from becoming another statistic?
Gavin De Becker, a national expert on predicting violent behavior and author of “Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (And Parents Sane)” (Random House, 336 pages, $11.95), writes that parents already know most of what they need to protect their children. But it’s a matter of trusting your parenting instincts, not society, to identify potential threats to your children’s safety.
  “It’s one thing to never get a warning about some risk to our children; it’s quite another to get a signal and then ignore it,” says DeBecker. “To protect your child, you must believe in yourself.”
The first thing parents need to do, he says, is acknowledge that there are threats out there. Sticking your head in the sand because it isn’t pleasant will not make it go away. “Of all the approaches you might take to enhance the safety of your child, do you suppose that ignorance about violence is an effective one?” he writes.

Dispelling the Myths:

You’ll Recognize the Bogeyman by his Trench Coat
When you imagine a child predator, you’re more likely to picture a scruffy pervert in ragged clothes than a familiar gym coach or science teacher. But the experts say you’d better think twice. Nearly 100 percent of sexual abuse of children is committed by heterosexual men. Ninety percent of them already know the child, often because we invited them into our lives as friend, neighbor or family member.
“Strangers are not the most common abusers,” confirms Lauren Hoffman, director of communications for Stop Child Abuse Georgia. “In Georgia, only like 1 percent of abusers are strangers. Most children are abused by someone they know.”
 “A parent could offer no greater cooperation to a predator than to spend time thinking, ‘But he seems like such a nice man,’ yet this is exactly what many people do,” says De Becker. “It’s easier to worry about unknown strangers than taking a hard look at who you’ve invited in the front door.”
Though child kidnapping cases often get a lot of media airtime, your child’s odds of having a heart attack is greater than his risk of being snatched off the street, says De Becker. “Out of nearly 70 million American children, less than 100 a year are provably kidnapped by strangers.”

Don’t Talk to Strangers
Though generations of us were taught this lesson, there are a number of reasons why telling your children not to talk to strangers is not particularly useful advice. In fact, De Becker argues that pushing this message actually increases children’s safety risk.
“Within the message Never Talk to Strangers (because they may harm you) is the implication that people who know you will not harm you. If stranger equals danger, then friend equals safety. But the opposite is true far more often,” he says.
It’s also very difficult for children to understand exactly who is a stranger. They see you contradict this advice over and over again.
  “Say hello to the nice lady.”
  “Can you tell that gentleman how
old you are?”
 “What they actually learn is, ‘Never talk to strangers unless they are wearing a clown suit or a uniform, or they work at the bank, or they’re registering us to vote, or they’re seeking signatures on a petition, or they’re handing out tasty samples, or they’re nice,’” says De Becker.
Instead of teaching our children to avoid strangers, the experts suggest that we should be instructing them how to speak to adults. “Parents need to make sure they teach kids how to ask for help and be assertive,” says Liz Ferguson, Services Coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Georgia. “Predators are looking for a child who’s quiet, compliant, withdrawn. An assertive child is less likely to be a target.”
“The irony is, if lost in public, the ability to talk to strangers is actually the single greatest asset he could have,” says De Becker.
Lead your children through small public interactions with people they don’t know, always within your view, of course. From asking for directions to the correct time, they will develop important communication skills as well as gain experience targeting a safe person to ask for help. This knowledge will prove invaluable, should they ever truly become separated from you.

Look for a Policeman
Unfortunately, Andy Taylor turned in his badge about two generations ago. Very few of us still live in communities where police officers walk the streets in search of lost children. And even if they were there, writes De Becker, children would be hard pressed to recognize them from the knees down. Badges and other identifying accessories are worn from the waist up, beyond most children’s view.
A better solution is to tell your children to look for a Mommy. Studies have proven that women are much more likely to get personally involved if a child needs assistance. Plus, your child’s odds of choosing the wrong person for help drop dramatically when she selects a female, because women are virtually never child predators.

Children Can Prevent Abuse
Instructing your children about good and bad touch, then sending them forth into the world isn’t enough. Parents are their children’s defense system, says De Becker.
 “Childhood is only safe when we make it so,” he says. “I’ve observed people in public leave a small child farther away than they’d ever leave a purse or briefcase. That assumes that the child can protect himself, but that’s not true.”
The responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders to be vigilant in controlling the people who have access to our children. From asking about employee background checks at our childcare centers and fingerprinting little league coaches to meeting your child’s playmates and their families before allowing an overnight sleepover, it’s your job to ask questions. Don’t send your children into a lion’s den by assuming that everyone’s idea of a safe environment for children is the same as yours.

Arming Yourself and Your Children

Teach Children Their Bodies Belong to Them
This is actually a lesson for the entire family. When we force our children to kiss grandma when they don’t want to or hug unfamiliar relatives at family gatherings, the message we’re sending is that they are not free to choose what they do with their own bodies, and that they cannot say no to adults. Even when they’re uncomfortable with the request.
 “Just tell Grandma, ‘Let Timmy come on his own terms,’” says Sally Thigpen, statewide coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Georgia. “Children should learn to have respect for their own bodies.”
Part of body ownership is familiarity. Experts recommend teaching your children the correct, medical names for their body parts. Even though you may not have heard the words outside high school health class and the thought of your 3-year-old saying penis makes you squirm.
“Even the least creative people seem to flourish when it comes to finding ways to prevent their young son or daughter from saying vagina,” says De Becker.
“As adults, grown-ups, we’ve been raised to be very hidden about our sexuality,” says Thigpen. “It’s an embarrassment, so it tends to be secretive. But it gives kids comfort if they can say words comfortably and they’re not being bad or naughty. It creates an environment to talk safely.”
“My own wife’s not comfortable saying the medical names,” says Dr. Eric Lewkoweiz, an assistant professor and family psychiatrist at the Medical College of Georgia. “It is strange, though. Why would you teach them, ‘this is your elbow, this is your arm,’ and then not teach them the correct name for those parts?”
“You’re creating an environment that’s open and not secretive,” says Ferguson. “Secrets are a big part of sexual abuse.”
It’s vitally important that should your child need to tell someone about abuse, he has the vocabulary to communicate clearly. It’s also important that his baby words not lead people to jump to incorrect conclusions.
Case in point: several years ago a 4-year-old named Carly showed up at her preschool complaining of a pain. “My noo-noo hurts,” she told her teacher. “My daddy hurt my noo-noo.”
Her teacher called in the director, who in turn called social services and the police. Upon further questioning, however, it turned out that Carly’s noo-noo (elbow) injury occurred when her daddy lost his grip while teaching her to ride a bicycle.

Listen and Ask Questions
  Communicating with your children is more than just asking about their day at school. It also includes watching and questioning unusual behavior.
  It’s Sunday morning; you’re in a rush to get the family out the door to church. Your son refuses to get out of bed and get dressed. What do you do?
  “When your child says ‘I don’t want to go to Uncle Bob’s or Sunday school,’ the knee-jerk response is to say, ‘Get up and get moving,’” says Thigpen. “But you need to stop and ask why.”
  Likewise, if you see something that makes you uncomfortable, question it. “I noticed you forced your nephew to wrestle when he didn’t want to,’” offers Thigpen, as an example. “‘Why did you do that?’ Ask the hard questions. Understand that kids can’t protect themselves.”

Find Teachable Moments
Creating an open forum and an ongoing conversation throughout your child’s life is the most effective way to communicate on any tough subject. A few furtive minutes where you struggle to deliver a cryptic speech then never readdress the subject communicates volumes.
“You’ve got to be comfortable with the material,” says Lewkowiez.
Many children don’t tell their parents when abuse happens because they are afraid their parents aren’t strong enough to handle the information. They don’t want to upset them. By communicating openly and calmly about tough subjects, you’re demonstrating control. Your children will be more comfortable asking questions and bringing up uncomfortable topics.
 “Let their questions guide what you teach,” says Lewkowiez. “When your child tells you, ‘So and so touched someone at school,’ at that point, it can start a conversation. ‘Those are private areas. Don’t touch anyone’s private areas, and don’t allow anyone to touch yours.’ But remember, you’re going to have to continue to reinforce whatever message and update it as the child gets older.”
“What we’re telling you is not an easy thing,” says Ferguson. “Take advantage of teachable moments. Not that you have to sit down every three months, but talk about a friend, or something on TV. The world is an arena for discussion.”

Trust Your Instinct, No Apologies
It can be difficult to make an unpopular decision. To tell your child he can’t visit someone’s house because you question its safety or to ask for a background or reference check on a popular babysitter or coach before leaving your child in his care may raise a few eyebrows. But keep in mind, someone who has your child’s best interests at heart will appreciate your concern.
 “Can we really look foolish for doing our best to protect our children? In this context, it would seem more embarrassing to keep quiet,” says Dr. Becker. l
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