Your child should know how and why to call 911 from about age 4. First, define what an emergency is, so she doesn't think it's okay to call for help as a game. Tell her to use 911 only under one of the following circumstances:
• If Mommy or Daddy asks you to.
• If Mommy, Daddy, a babysitter, or another adult passes out and you can't wake him or her up.
• If there's fire and an adult isn't present.
• If you see an accident and it looks like people are hurt.
Rehearse mock-dialing 911 with your child (make sure there's a phone within her reach and she knows where it is) and teach her to answer the operator's questions simply and not to hang up until the operator tells her to. You should also explain to older kids that all 911 calls are traced and prank calls usually result in the prankster being punished.
It's also a good idea to talk to your child about different types of emergency workers, what their uniforms look like (police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, for instance), and how they help people in trouble. This will remind your child not be frightened by these professionals if they come to her rescue. Some children trapped in fires have been known to hide from firefighters because they looked scary with their masks on. --Sandra Gordon
Copyright 2001. Reprinted with permission from the October 2001 issue of Parents magazine. Updated 2009