The statistics are staggering: Every year 28.8 million children have something stolen from them, 1.8 million children are reported missing (although some of those are runaways), and anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million children are sexually molested. All across the country parents fear for their youngsters but wonder how to protect them or teach them to protect themselves. Enter Grace Hechinger, 53, armed with her new book, How to Raise a Street-Smart Child (Facts on File Publications, $14.95), a primer for parents that grew out of her own experiences. Hechinger’s sons, John, 18, now a Yale freshman, and Paul, 23, a reporter for The MacNeil-Lehrer News-Hour, were mugged on the street several times while growing up in New York City in the mid-’70s. Their mother, a writer specializing in education, women’s issues and family life, could not find more than a pamphlet on street safety, so eventually she decided to write a book. She began her year and a half of research by soliciting the wisdom of more than two dozen police officers from Portland, Oreg. to Montclair, N.J. She also talked with psychologists, childhood specialists, educators, school-security officers, parents and children. Hechinger has co-authored three previous books with her husband, Fred M. Hechinger, education columnist of the New York Times, with whom she lives in New York. She shared her stratagems for survival with reporter Molly McKaughan.
How should parents broach this sensitive subject?
Watching television with your kids, especially the local news, is a good place to begin. You can ask them questions: “What would you do?” “Did that person act in the best way?” A family outing can also provide an occasion to prepare children. Before a shopping trip to the mall, for instance, tell your child that if he’s lost he should go to the store manager or to a specific checkout counter and wait for you—that he should stay in one place and not try to find you. And you can stress that he should not leave the store with anyone. But you don’t have to wait for an occasion. You can sit a child down and say that there’s something that’s been bothering you that you want to talk about.
What should parents tell a child to do if someone is following him?
Tell him to walk faster. If there are stores around, he should go into one. Safe routes home that you pick for your child should have stores on them. Tell him to wave to someone across the street as if he knew him. And, of course, if people are around, he can yell, but it’s better to yell “Fire!” or “You’re not my father!” than “Help!” because people don’t always respond to calls for help, whereas fire may involve them personally.
What’s the best way to teach kids to be wary of strangers?
First of all you probably should not use the word “stranger.” Preschoolers may not understand what it means. They may think it’s someone who looks weird. So you should tell them not to talk to, or go anywhere with, anyone they don’t know—including people they see occasionally in the supermarket or the park. “What if…” games are very effective. For instance, “What if a person you don’t know comes up to you in the playground and says, ‘My puppy is lost, will you help me find it?’ ” The child should say no, or ignore the request and walk away immediately.
Could you give some other examples of “What if” games?
They’ll depend on your individual situation. But a parent might say, “What if you are waiting for the elevator, and when it comes a scary man is in it?” The advice is: If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t get in. The child can say, “I’m waiting for my mother—go ahead.” If you’re already in an elevator, stand near the control panel. If you feel scared, push the button for the next floor and get off as fast as you possibly can.
How can you help your child avoid sexual abuse?
You as a parent should respect his feelings. If a relative wants to give your child a sloppy kiss and he doesn’t want it, he can say “No, thank you,” and shake hands instead. If someone older wants to touch a child’s penis or vagina, the child can run away. A parent has to tell a child what sex abuse is and that he can say no and should come to tell you about it. That’s his best protection. You can teach your child to be polite, yet still let him know it’s okay to say no under certain circumstances. I believe some crimes are committed because kids have simply been taught politeness too well.
Won’t these warnings make kids overly fearful?
Not if you give them a plan. All children are terrified of losing their parents and being taken away, but if you directly confront the fear and tell them something they can do about it, it makes them less fearful. With a small child, you should often go over family rules about strangers and the plan if they get lost. If you’re going to the mall to shop, don’t expect your 6-year-old to remember the plan from the week before. Tell him again. The important thing to realize is that the discussion of these subjects is never really finished.
How much freedom should young children have?
I firmly believe any child should be accompanied to school, and watched while he plays outside, until he is 7 or 8. It’s a nuisance to do so, but children younger than that simply aren’t able to cope. When a child starts kindergarten, he should know his name and phone number and a parent’s work number by heart, so he can remember them even if he’s panicked.
What should you do before letting a child go to school alone?
Make sure there will be other children to walk with and that he knows where to go if help is needed. Go over the route with your child and point out any danger spots—a difficult crossing, a deserted house. Make sure your child knows how to cross streets safely and understands the rules about strangers.
Do muggers pick on a particular kind of child?
I think so. Kids themselves talk about some kids who look more “mug-gable.” They dress “richer” than other children, and they carry expensive possessions with them. You should therefore make sure that your child dresses like all the others, and is “a zebra among zebras,” as one policeman put it.
How did you handle your own sons’ muggings?
We had told them to give up their money and possessions and not to fight if the mugger was larger and possibly armed, which is also the advice the police give. But although my sons were never injured, they always felt like wimps when they didn’t fight back. What I tried to stress was that they were not running away from a fair fight—a fight with someone their own size—and that the important thing was that they came through in one piece. The bike or skateboard could be replaced.
Is there anything a kid can do so he doesn’t feel like a wimp?
If kids carry their money in several places, the mugger only gets some of it—which makes them feel like they didn’t give in completely. If they act crazy, or feign nausea, or say their parents have just been laid off, sometimes the muggers will leave. One girl was walking with a friend when she was mugged. She began laughing hysterically from nervousness, and the friend, thinking quickly, said, “Don’t mind her, she’s out visiting from the local mental hospital.” The muggers fled. Another thing to do is to pretend to cooperate, and then run when the mugger isn’t paying attention. But I should caution that these methods should only be tried if you are sure that the mugger is unarmed.
How should parents deal with a child’s fear after an upsetting incident?
One psychologist I spoke to stressed that everything doesn’t come out the first time the child tells what happened. The repetition of the story, which is so necessary for the child, can be extremely painful for parents. For this reason, in the case of sexual abuse I think it may be wise for parents to seek professional help for themselves, as well as for their child, so that they learn how to listen and respond. The important thing is never to make your child feel he is to blame for what happened or that the problem isn’t important to you.