Though most safety information is geared toward children ages 5 and older, experts agree you should talk to your preschooler about safety now. "It's never too soon as long as you're approaching the topic in a developmentally appropriate way," says Walter Gilliam, PhD, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, at Yale University.
While it's true that most preschoolers don't play outside or walk around alone, they still need clear information about what to do if they become separated from you in public. Here's a five-point safety plan taken from various experts and recommended for young children.
While most parents teach their kids to never go with a stranger, their understanding of this concept is often murky. Gilliam explains, "Preschoolers think of a stranger as someone who's 'scary' or 'bad,' so a friendly or nice person may not be seen as a threat by a young child."
Samantha Wilson, a former police officer who founded kidproofusa.com, says that teaching our kids "don't talk to strangers" is actually the biggest mistake parents make. "Instead, we have to teach kids never to go anywhere with anyone without asking their parents' permission first." This is the lesson we should reinforce as soon as we begin speaking to children about safety. It's clear and easy to understand, even for preschoolers.
If your lost child is shouting, "Mommy!" it can be difficult to distinguish her voice among other children calling for their moms. According to Joselle Shea, manager of children and youth initiatives at the National Crime Prevention Council, preschoolers should learn the first and last names of their parents or any other of their caregivers. "You have to repeat this information to children over and over again to help them remember it. Then if they ever become lost, they can tell someone who their parents are."
Gilliam suggests getting your child interested in learning your name by presenting it as something very special. "Ask your children if they know your real name, the name other grown-ups use for you. The more important and empowering the information seems to preschoolers, the quicker they'll be willing to learn it."
Some parents worry that encouraging children to yell for help will make them easy targets for predators. Not so, Wilson says. "Predators are looking for the kid who is not drawing attention. The kid yelling for her mom is too much trouble."
If your child becomes separated from you, stays put, and calls your name but you don't return, then the next step is to ask for help. This is another reason we can't tell our children never to talk to strangers. Children this age should ask another mother with children for help, Wilson suggests. (Older children can learn to ask police officers or store clerks, but preschoolers can't yet distinguish uniforms from other types of dark clothing.)
"Statistically, a mother with children is the safest bet for your kid," Wilson says. "Women will generally commit more time to helping your child because men are afraid that if they help they'll be targeted as a predator." The first rule still applies, though. Teach your children to stay where they are, yell your name, and ask women nearby for help.
One of the biggest roadblocks to your child's safety is your uncertainty about how to approach the subject. Wilson says it best: "We have to keep our fears in perspective and talk to our kids calmly about how to keep safe."
Sherryll Kraizer, PhD, author of The Safe Child Book, likens the task to teaching kids how to cross the street. "We don't say to a kid, 'See that truck? It's trying to run you down!' Instead, we give kids positive, empowering rules for safe behavior, rather than pointing out all the things that could hurt them. You should do the same with personal safety."
"Try to talk to your children in small, frequent bits, especially during teachable moments," says Dr. Strauss. "For example, when you're at the mall and it's very crowded, ask your 3-year-old what she would do if the two of you got separated. Then you can suggest the simple steps for safety." And in every conversation about safety, reassure your child, Wilson stresses. "The most important thing you should tell your child is, "If we get separated, I will find you, so stay calm and follow the safety rules."
Talking about safety is key, but as anyone who's tried to explain something to a preschooler knows, you often end up in a circle of whys. But why should I call your name? So I can find you. But why should you find me? Because you're lost. But why am I lost? Aaargh!
A better approach is to practice through role-playing. However, kids this age are easily traumatized, Gilliam warns, so acting out being lost has to be positive and empowering rather than scary. "Focus on positive things kids can do to find a parent rather than how they can stop a bad adult from taking them away," Gilliam says.
At home or even in safe public spaces, let your children pretend to get separated from you; then work through the steps of staying put and yelling your name. Joselle Shea suggests getting a friend involved so your kids can practice asking another mother for help.