Q: We recently learned that a sex offender moved into our neighborhood. How can we make our kids aware of this person without scaring them?
A: Sit your kids down at a time when the whole family is together and there are no other distractions (after breakfast on a weekend is perfect, since having the talk in the evening may be too scary for young kids). Explain that this person (show them a picture or provide an address if you have it) has hurt children (if that is the case) and that they should stay away from him, his house, and his car. Emphasize that they should not have anything to do with this man -- that includes even talking to him -- and that if he approaches them for any reason they do not have to be polite. Instead they should run away and tell you immediately. You can also give your children general, age-appropriate advice on how to stay safer, including:
- Once your child starts school (around 4 or 5) explain what constitutes their private parts and that if someone tries to touch them, they should scream and run away -- no matter who it is. Emphasize that if this happens it's never a secret (no matter what the person says or threatens to do) and they should tell you or another trusted adult. - Tell young children that if a grownup (even someone they know well) offers to share anything with them (like candy, toys, his bike, or video games) they need to check with you first. - Teach older children (starting at around 7 or 8) how a potentially dangerous situation might unfold. Explain that no adult should ever tell them an explicit joke, show them explicit pictures, or encourage them to keep secrets of any kind from you. - Warn kids about "authority tricks." Say that if someone claiming to be a police officer tells them to get into a car, they should first ask your permission. Explain that they will not get into trouble by doing this and that no real policeman would take a child anywhere without having that child ask their parents first. Remember, sex offenders have used fake badges and uniforms. - Teach teenagers to trust their instincts about a person or situation and to get away as soon as they sense something isn't right. Tell them not to worry about being rude and that if they "go with their gut" you will always support them.
The sad fact is that statistically the greatest danger to kids comes from adults they already know. So it's a good idea to use the National Sex Offender Registry to check out any adults with access to your kids who may not have otherwise undergone a background check. For example, school teachers and staff, camp counselors, and workers at licensed daycare centers have usually been checked out already, but you should still inquire about the background screening. Volunteers at Little League, Sunday school, the community pool, and babysitters who advertise in local papers and on message boards most likely have not been screened, so it's even more important to diligently check their background and references before allowing your child to spend time with them.