Giving children the opportunity to explore is an important first step to their independence

Parents aren’t doing their kids any favours by keeping them by their side 24/7 and instead need to teach them how to stay safe while exploring the great outdoors, writes Andrea Mara.

NOW the summer holidays are finally here, children up and down the country are free to enjoy the great outdoors and a renewed sense of freedom. 

Meanwhile, anxious parents are worrying about safety and wondering how much to let go. 

Should we teach our kids about stranger danger and then let them roam free, or is it better to keep them close to home?

Stella O’Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids — What’s Making Irish Parents Paranoid, says giving children freedom is critical.

“The main reason for encouraging kids to roam free is so that one day, when they’re older, they can handle a risky situation without freezing. 

"All humans need to learn how to practice life in the shallow water so that when we’re in deep water, we have some experience with the situation.

“Children need the opportunity to make decisions in an easy environment such as their locality, where they know most of the people, so that they gain enough practice in making decisions without adults always giving their tuppence worth.”

Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist at Solamh agrees. 

“Part of growing up is to separate out from your parents, become your own person. It’s good for children to have opportunities to do things for themselves and to experience varying degrees of trust and independence as they grow up.

“This is often more scary for parents than children but you do not do your children any favours by keeping them by your side throughout their lives, in fact this can make it very difficult for them to grow up feeling confident within themselves.”

In Ireland, instances of abductions and attempted abductions are relatively rare — it is our awareness of those instances that has increased. 

“What we do see is an increase in posts, shares, articles about these cases, which can make parents feel the level of risk has increased though it actually hasn’t,” says Fortune.

“And remember it’s not just strangers who can pose a risk to your child, many children who are abused are abused by someone they know.”

Mary Nicholson of the ISPCC confirms that abductions are uncommon. 

“Fortunately, incidents of children going missing are rare. However, now the summer holidays are here, children will be spending more time in the great outdoors, playing in the good weather or exploring new places with their families.

“We would urge parents to be vigilant about children’s safety and equip them with skills and confidence to be as safe as possible in public.”

So how do we teach children about safety without frightening them?

To begin with, we don’t need to use the term “stranger danger” says Fortune. 

“It may conjure up some scary images immediately and make your child anxious. Also starting a conversation about danger tends to mean you are focusing on negative and scary stories.

“It may be more effective to talk to your children about stranger safety and focus on positive steps they can take to stay safe when not in your care.”

Instead of talking about strangers, talk about “tricky people” says O’Malley. 

“Most people probably give kids a ‘thumbs up’ feeling but the odd person makes you feel funny inside. Children should be encouraged to listen to their gut feeling and to keep their distance from tricky people.”

The ISPCC is advising parents to establish the Check First rule with children — ensure that children always check first with you before they go anywhere, and to teach children their full name, address and telephone number. 

Parents also need to teach children how to use their “strong voice” O’Malley says.

“This voice isn’t squeaky or scared but in a lower tone and a louder volume than your normal voice. 

"Parents need to teach their kids a few key phrases that they can repeat in a loud voice whenever is appropriate; for example, ‘My mum says I’m not allowed to’ or ‘I don’t want to’.”

Fortune suggests developing a safety plan with your child — for example, they should know to check with the adult in charge if anyone tries to get close to them or asks them to move away from their friends.

“And ensure your child knows that you would never send a stranger to pick them up from somewhere.”

It’s also important for parents to teach their children excellent road safety. 

“Being hurt in a car accident is by far the most dangerous risk for Irish children today and parents need to ensure their children know safe behaviour from risky behaviour,” says O’Malley.

Ultimately, children need lots of freedom to play and explore says Fortune, summing it up.

“That’s an essential part of childhood and we cannot allow our adult fears to steal their childhood from them. Better to teach safety than fear, but neither at a cost of the adventure that is and should be childhood.”

Safety tips

1. Teach children how to speak to appropriate strangers — for example, a shop assistant or a garda.

2. Ensure they know that “strangers” look like everyone else, and not like “baddies” on TV.

3. Teach them that adults shouldn’t ask children for help and if they do it’s inappropriate, and so it’s quite alright for children to keep their distance.

4. Talk to children about ‘tricky people’ who give them a ‘thumbs down’ feeling in their tummy.

5. Teach them to use their “strong voice”.

6. Teach key phrases like, ‘I don’t want to’.

7. Teach them how to keep their distance from dangerous situations, for example, a person on the street who is drunk.

8. Teach children how to stand their ground and speak their mind — predatory adults tend to target quiet and obedient children.

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