Safety strategies to keep kids safe

Practice how to deal with tricky people and who to trust

By Caron Irwin

Spring and summer are the seasons of festivals, fairs, trips to the beach and park hangs –  creating many happy lasting memories for families. It is also an important time to talk to your kids about stranger danger and make sure they are prepared to keep themselves safe.

While this can be scary and a difficult topic, it is our job as parents to teach our children how to recognize dangerous situations, protect themselves and strike a balance between being friendly and being safe. Below are some tips and strategies to help parents protect their kids:

When the discussion should take place

You should start discussing this with your child around the age of three, or once they can understand simple concepts. Parents should have this conversation when there are no distractions and they have time to address their child’s questions. I suggest during a mealtime or in the car.

Drop the word Stranger

Stay away from using the word stranger for two reasons. We don’t want to instill fear into our children and make them feel like they cannot trust the adults in their world. And the word stranger does not necessarily depict the type of person that we are trying to protect our children from. Children sometimes believe strangers look or sound scary. Often the individuals we are trying to protect our children from act friendly and look and seem like kind, friendly adults.

Use the term Tricky People

The term Tricky People was popularized by Pattie Fitzgerald. The term tricky people allows children to focus less on what the person looks like and more on what they do by describing specific tricky characteristics. Tricky people are grown ups that are familiar or unfamiliar and seem friendly and look like normal grown-ups. Tricky people trick children into breaking their family rules, use tricks to motivate children (candy, treats, pets etc.) and ask children to keep secrets.

After discussing tricky people, it’s important to spend some time describing the characteristics of trusting adults to show the differences – the crossing guard is a safe person, she is an adult who helps you cross the street safely.

Practice and role play

Children learn best through play and by doing.

Present your child with specific scenarios and pose questions such as: ‘What would you do if a grown-up offered you candy, or asked you to help them find their lost puppy or asked you to show them where the washroom was?’

Use your child’s answers to help guide the conversation and provide additional information. You should always remind your child that if they are ever in one of these situations, or have an adult say or do something that makes them feel uncomfortable, confused, scared, gross, weird in your stomach (use language they understand), that they should quickly move themselves away and look for a safe adult to help.

It is important to role play – have your child practice moving away and finding a safe adult. This experience will help your child as they rehearse what to do and will respond appropriately in the moment. When you do role play, keep things light and fun.

Empower Your Kids to Stay Safe

Make sure your child knows their full name and the first and last name of their parents by age 3 and their address and phone number by age 4.

Identify your child’s safe adults – parents, nanny, grandparents, friend’s mom, teacher.

Make sure your child knows to never take anything from or go with someone they don’t know.

Use the Check First rule. Your child has to check first with their safe adult and get permission before they go anywhere, change plans, or get into a car  – even if it’s with someone they know. If they can’t check first, then the answer is NO!

Remind your child that adults never ask children for help, they ask other adults for help.

Have a family code word. A secret word that your child knows and can be used when plans change. For example, your child should ask for the secret word when getting picked up by someone different than planned. If the person can’t provide the code word, the child then knows not to go with that person and find a safe person for help. 

Tell your child if they ever get lost or separated from you that they should go to an adult who works at the place – teacher, clerk, librarian, etc. If that is not possible, they should go find another parent who is with children.

Go over these tips with your child often.

Caron Irwin is a Toronto-based mother of three and the founder of Roo Parenting, where she provides parents of kids ages 0-12 with support to navigate the adventures and challenges of parenting. She holds a Master’s in Early Childhood Studies from Ryerson University and is a Certified Child Life Specialist.