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How to Teach Young Kids What to Do in an Emergency... Without Scaring Them

Small boy talking on mobile phone

When I was a little girl my mom and I used to play this game I called “What If.” “What if,” my mom would say, “we were in a store and you looked up and couldn’t see me? What would you do?” “Stay where I am and tell someone who works at the store that I’m lost!” I’d tell her, proud of my answer. “Would you go looking for me?” “No, because you might come back and not know where to find me!” “Would you ask someone else for help?” "No, only a person who works at the store!” “Good.”

I loved “What If.” What if a stranger offers to give you candy? What if someone tells you they know your parents and you should come with them? What if you get on the bus and the doors close before I can get on too?

It sounds like it should have been frightening. It seems like I should have wondered will this stuff actually happen? But I didn’t wonder that at all. My mom made it like solving a puzzle. My very own “Escape the Room” scenario.

Now that I’m a mom, I appreciate even more what my own mother was doing. I was growing up in New York City in the ‘80s. These were things I needed to know. But, instead of lecturing me, or scaring me, my mom turned it into a game. One I remember to this day.

When I tell other mothers about this game, the most common reaction is shock. Your mother was talking to you about being lost, and kidnapped, and hurt? Their faces and the tone of their voices tell me how strange that seems to them. How, instead of teaching their children about these possibilities, they are actively shielding them from them.

It’s an impulse I understand. It’s terrifying, as a mother, to think that any of those things could happen to our children. But I don’t think it’s paranoid to say that teaching our children basic skills for what to do in an emergency is a good (and necessary) thing. The important thing, of course, is to do it in a way that doesn’t scare them, but helps them remember what they need to know. Just like my mom did for me.

If you see the value in what I’m saying but aren’t sure how to proceed, here are a few tips that can help you begin to talk to your kids about safety. (You know your child best, so only you will know when your child is old enough to internalize these ideas. But preschool age is usually a good time to start.)

1.  Play “What If”

Just like my mom did for me, turn the conversation into a game. Use clear, non-sensational language and a neutral tone. You don’t want to say, “What if a big, scary, bad man comes and wants to hurt you?” but rather, “What if someone you don’t know tries to hold your hand?” Give lots of praise for correct answers (the way you would when playing any other kind of word game) and be positive and clear if your child isn’t sure or says the wrong thing. For example, if you ask whether he should go somewhere with a stranger and he says “yes,” don’t admonish him by saying something like, “No!  That would be really bad and dangerous and you could get killed!” Instead, ask leading questions until you get to the right answer. “Well, do you know him?” “Why would you go with him?” If he’s still not getting it, just say something clear and to-the-point. “We don’t go places with strangers because then our parents won’t know where we are.”