If your child moves about on their own, to and from school or activities, there are two critical tools in the personal safety toolbox that I believe trump all others: Awareness and Avoidance.
Awareness seems obvious, yet in today's world of bluetooth headsets and smartphones for kids and adults, it is something that gets lost within our culture of constant connectedness.
The cardinal rules of Awareness are:
1. Be Present. Commit to what you are doing - walking to the bus, running an errand, crossing the street. Focus on this one activity. No texts, no music, no checking your phone. This includes the inevitable downtime on everyday journeys: waiting for the light to change; the bus to come; standing in line, practice presence. Do not use that 10 seconds to check or answer a text or read something on your phone. Being aware means being in the moment. When you toggle your attention to a device even during times that feel inactive, you take your attention away from your surroundings and therefore make yourself immediately less safe.
TIP: If you need to text while you are out and about: STOP. Put your back to a wall or step out of the flow of humanity, do your text and then walk on.
2. No Headphones. This is so simple, and yet, everyday I see adults and kids listening to music while walking about the streets. Doing this immediately puts you at a disadvantage and cuts off one of your most important senses - hearing. When you can hear, you will hear when someone is running at you from behind before you see it. You will hear the gears in a car shift or the sound of tires before you see the car. You will hear someone yelling at another person (or themselves), perhaps having a fight - signaling you want to tune in and perhaps move away. You give yourself time to avoid a situation if at all possible.
TIP: No headphones. Ever. End of story.
3. Have a Plan (yet be willing to change it). Know your route in advance. If it is a route your child will walk every day, to school, or an activity or a friends house, do a Safety Walk together in advance. Even if the regular solo-time is only to cross the street, watch the traffic pattern together for a few minutes and discuss crossing options. Talk about catching the Eye of the Driver. If you meet your child at the bus stop every day, discuss a plan for what to do if you are late, or don't show up. What should they do if a stranger stops them? When going to a new location, always check the route in advance of leaving home. If that is not possible, and they need to check their devices on the way, remind them to step to the side, back to a wall, in a safe, well-lit space. When needed, be prepared to Change the Plan. See below for more.
TIP: Do a Safety Walk with your child in advance of solo outings, no matter how small. You can do a version of a Safety Walk inside your own home as a way to build up to solo outings.
4. Play Secret Agent. When I walk down the street, or ride a bus or a subway, I always make note of those around me. I treat it like a game. I scan a subway car before deciding to enter it and I try to know who is behind me and in front of me when walking down the street or riding public transportation. I do this quickly and constantly without obsessing, a fast mental survey. Sometimes I decide to hang back or speed up if I don't like the looks of someone. Sometimes I am scanning for a "safety buddy" - someone who may be an ally in a tricky situation. (For a great safety buddy in action see this "Snack Man" video). For kids, good safety buddies can be mothers who have kids with them, police officers, bus drivers or conductors, ticket-takers or store workers in local businesses. Be aware of those around you.
TIP: Look for Safety Buddies.
Avoidance is another tactic that makes sense, yet is not always as straight-forward for kids as it is for adults.
1. Trust your Gut. Kids get funny feelings just like adults do. Teaching them to recognize those feelings and then act on them is a key step in creating a lifelong habit of personal safety. First, acknowledge to your children they may sometimes feel unsafe. Assure them this is natural and tell them if they get that feeling, to always listen to it. Give them Permission to Act. This may seem obvious to adults, yet you need to specifically say to kids: "You have my permission to make any decision you need in order to stay safe, even if you think it is something that might make me mad."
TIP: Give your child explicit Permission to Act.
2. Be Willing to Change Your Plan. It is important to know where you are going, yet equally important to be willing to change the plan when you feel your personal safety is at risk. As parents, give your child or teen permission to change the plan. They can be late, or decide not to go somewhere, or change the destination if that decision was made because they felt unsafe. This might mean waiting for another subway or bus, going down a different street or longer route, or stopping for 10 minutes inside a store to allow an unsafe person or group of people pass. Talk to kids about deciding to turn around and walk back the way they came if they don't like the look of a block or street. Give them options to consider if they want or need to avoid a potentially unsafe situation. Present this as a very viable and acceptable option. Let kids know it is okay to make their own decisions in the moment.
TIP: When in doubt, AVOID. Turn around, wait for another subway, go the long way around, or stay put. Avoidance is a very mature decision to make and is not rude or weak. It is smart and safe.
3. Share Your Safety. Sometimes kids will not tell a parent about a safety concern or issue that came up when they are on their own because they are worried they will lose the chance to be independent. Safety conversations are not "one and done". They are an on-going dialogue. Encourage kids to share decisions they make and tell you about concerns they have. Reassure them that just because something may happen that causes them to change a plan, that does not mean they will never be allowed out of the house again. Honor their choices, even if, as an adult, you may have made a different safety call. Kids are feeling out their comfort zones and it's important to build the muscles for good judgement that is grounded in self-awareness and self-advocacy.
These tips and tools will help form a strong foundation of personal safety knowledge that will grow with your kids beyond street safety to more complex decisions involving a variety of tricky situations as teens and young adults.
For more on Awareness, see our Blog post Cop Lesson #1 Awareness is Key written by former NYPD Captain Rita Mullaney.