Code words are a simple way of increasing the safety of children and when it comes down to it, isn't keeping children safe the most important part of being a parent?
Every day, parents around the world give their children the same advice they themselves grew up on: "Don't speak to strangers."
While excellent advice, few parents will go on to explain to their children why this rule is so important. Their reasons for not covering this area will vary according to the individual but even if it is discussed, these safety conversations often leave out the possible dangers from supposed authority figures and people the children already know.
While an authority figure could be a person in many types of occupations, the most common ones are police officers, fire department personnel, hospital workers, school employees and church officials.
Children usually receive two impressions from their parents concerning police.
Typical parental advice teaches children to go to a police officer if lost or in trouble; that the officer is there to "serve and protect" them so, in turn, the police are people to be trusted. At the same time, every time they pass a cruiser on the freeway, children will see (or even hear) parents acting afraid of that same public servant by slowing down and showing nervousness, or by checking their mirrors to see if the officer is coming after them for some unknown reason.
In the end, children see the police as authority figures who should be both feared and trusted. Confusing? Think of how it is for children. The media doesn't help these misconceptions by showing officers only in negative context, such as beating or shooting someone whom they are trying to apprehend. As for movies, good cops or bad, they all seem to end up shooting people.
Other authority figures whom children are taught to "respect and obey" are teachers, school officials, church members, pastors, babysitters and, of course, relatives such as aunts, uncles and grandparents. Depending on how social the family is, this list can multiply to an exceedingly large, confusing number of people. How can a child sort through all these individuals and know which ones are safe? Or that the message just delivered by the man (or woman) in the blue uniform or Mom's friend "Miss Sue" is actually from his parents?
A simple precaution parents can take to ensure their children don't go off with a possible assailant is to have a secret word that only parents and their children know. This secret or "code" word should be easy enough for the children to remember but obscure enough so that the assailant wouldn't be able to guess.
Obscure means it shouldn't be a pet's name, a nickname or something the child is known for, such as the color of her hair, favorite animal or color. If you decide on a TV character, try to avoid the most popular ones like Barney, the Power Puff Girls, Scooby and others. In the case of my eldest daughter, our first code word was "Tessa." It was the name of a supporting character in a show we all enjoyed.
The practice might very well save lives. In 2014, two boys reportedly scared off a potential kidnapper in Ogden, Utah, thanks to a family safety plan. The man told the 8-year-olds he was taking them home on behalf of their parents. When he couldn't say the password, the kids ran away to find other adults.
Lieutenant Danielle Croyle told KSL.com that the boys did exactly the right thing. "Number one, the buddy system," Croyle explained. "Two, that they had a password that they had to have."
Test the Code Word:
Once we chose a code word, I then had friends and coworkers test my daughter to see if she would follow her teachings. The first couple of times she didn't but eventually she got it right. So right, that the one time I actually did send a coworker to pick her up when I was stuck in surgery at work, my daughter wouldn't go. The coworker had to go inside the school and call me so I could tell my daughter to come back to the clinic with "Ms. Prissy."
When Codes Words Won't Work:
Code words can save a child's life. They can make the child feel secure in what could possibly be a traumatic time, but they aren't foolproof. Just picking a word isn't going to make the child remember to ask for it or respond to it. When testing the child, the code word shouldn't be given to the person you ask to approach your child. It is OK to change the word now and then but too often will leave the child confused.
There are circumstances where it isn't possible for a parent to give the code word to someone. A car accident, sudden illness or any other major event can result in the child being picked up by a neighbor, relative, friend or, in drastic cases, the police or local social services.
Discuss these possibilities with your children. Make them understand the importance of questioning the person who approaches them. Preferably, they will question them from a distance. There is no emergency so great that a child can't go to another authority figure and ask questions. Children should be taught that when they are approached at school or daycare to go directly to the office for help. A "real" police officer or social worker won't be angered by this minor delay. Nor should family or friends who mean the child no harm. The school can easily verify the story of the person wanting to take your child.
When testing your children, it isn't a bad idea to test the school as well. A test offers a perfect opportunity to find out how observant the employees are or how lax the security is.
While on the subject of testing, don't stop with only one test. Any establishment or system can have a good or off day. Teaching children to be safe is the job of each and every parent. Not the school or the daycare but the PARENT.
Credit: Tenna Perry
Tenna Perry lives happily in the country with her husband, three children, five collies, one cat and a hedgehog with an attitude. She writes on a variety of subjects but dedicates a great deal of her writing time on fighting all forms of child abuse. She is the founder/editor of the ezine Survivor Haven, Abuse and Safety editor at Busy Parents Online and contributing editor on child sexual abuse at Suite101.com.
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