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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.”

2. Make sure your child knows how to call 911

These days, calling 911 isn’t actually as simple as picking up the phone and dialing. If you still have a landline, teaching your child which numbers to push to reach emergency services is a good idea. He’ll love looking at the buttons of the phone and holding it up to his ear. (Make sure you explain that he should never do this unless it really is an emergency!) But, with smartphones, the procedure is a little different. On the iPhone, for example, getting to the phone keypad requires a bunch of steps too complicated for a small child to remember. Instead, I teach my son that he should press the home button twice, then press the button that has an E at the beginning. (The “Emergency” button on an iPhone calls emergency services and puts your phone into “emergency mode”.) If you have a different kind of phone, figure out what emergency options it offers and then teach your child. If you don’t say frightening things about why he might need to use this button, but instead say something like “if there’s an emergency this is what you do,” he’ll like the idea of getting to use the phone. Be sure to explain that, once he presses the Emergency button, he should hold the phone up to his ear and say, “I need help!” when he hears someone answer.

3. Explain what kinds of people are safe if you’re lost or need help

A simple way to explain this is to say that people wearing uniforms are safe people who can help. Policemen and firemen are usually easily recognizable to little kids. And transit workers, security guards, paramedics, etc. look similar enough to the safe adults they already recognize that they should be able to easily identify them as helpful adults. Even garbage men, city workers, window washers, and other people in uniform are safer adults than just random strangers on the street because they’re at work. If there’s no one in uniform around tell your child to go into the nearest store and say, “I need help” to the person who works there. The idea here is to teach your child that people working in some sort of official capacity are safer, in general, than people who aren’t.

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I know it’s scary to think about this kind of thing.  But it's scarier not to.  Be safe!