Your child should know how and why to call 911 from about age 4. Experts explain how to start the conversation.

By Adrienne Farr
Updated November 10, 2020
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Adult and Child Hold Cell Phone iPhone Black Keyboard In Background
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| Credit: ARIMAG/Shutterstock

Define an emergency.

Your child probably knows about firefighters, police officers, and maybe even EMTs. But there's one community helper they're likely not yet familiar with: the 911 dispatcher. Kids as young as 3 have called 911, saving a parent or another caregiver. Tell your child that 911 is a special phone number to call when there's an emergency. Give examples of when they'd need to call 911, such as if there's a fire or if a family member is sick and needs help right away.

Explain how to use the phone.

Keep a phone in a consistent place in your home so your preschooler will know exactly where to find it. If your cell phone needs to be unlocked, make sure your code is simple. Figure out the easiest way to call 911 on your phone (many brands have an emergency button) and teach your child how to do it. Hang a visual step-by-step guide at eye level near the phone to remind your child what to do.

Help them recall important info.

Ideally, your child should know their home phone number and address and each family member's first and last names. Singing the information will help it stick in their head. Families can create an emergency profile at smart911.com, which allows emergency dispatchers in more than 500 locations to see your exact address, the layout of your home, and existing medical conditions, if you choose to include that information.

Role-play an emergency.

You can pretend to need help and ask your child to call 911 using a toy phone. The Center for Childhood Safety offers a free app, called Kids' Practice 911 Dialer, which allows kids to practice making "the call" and explaining what the emergency is without accessing a live dispatcher. Go over what to say on the call. Practicing and pretending will better prepare your child to handle a real emergency. Books like Impatient Pamela Calls 9-1-1, by Mary Koski, can also familiarize your child with the process.

Sources: Kelley Abrams, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist for Cognoa, in Palo Alto, California; Lorraine Peters, operations director of Our Kids Place, in Hewlett, New York.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2020 issue as "Teach Your Child to Call 911." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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