Safety Sense for Parents and Kids

Posted By:

An interview with Pattie Fitzgerald by Abbie Schiller

Years ago I attended one of Pattie’s workshops on teaching safety to young children.  It was an eye-opening experience as I realized my huge responsibility to instill a sense of empowerment and common sense in my young child about her personal safety.  At first, I felt conflicted about introducing the concept of “tricky people” or that bad things can happen to my child who was so blissfully unaware.  But armed with Pattie’s advice, my daughter and I took gradual steps forward, learning these important lessons.  I was particularly impressed with Pattie’s concept of encouraging children to honor their “uh-oh feeling.”  Here are some of Pattie’s wonderfully insightful answers to common questions on safety:

At what age is it appropriate for parents to discuss how children should interact with people they don’t know?

Parents can begin the safety dialog with children as young as 3 years old. This is usually when kids are becoming more articulate and interactive in their environments. It begins simply with dialog along the lines of “it’s only okay to talk to someone you don’t know if mom, dad (or other safe adult/caretaker) is with you. The object is not to make children fearful of the world around them, but rather to give them guidance as to when and how to appropriately interact with others.

This is also a good time to introduce the safety rule “safe grownups do not ask kids for help if you’re by yourself” (#3 in the Super Ten Safe-Smarts Rules). In other words, kids should know that any adult approaching them, asking them for help, is breaking a rule. It’s only okay to help someone you don’t know if your safe grownup is with you. Otherwise, the answer is NO. If you start the dialog at a young age, children will embrace the safety concepts as “matter-of-fact” family rules.

What is the best way to encourage children to be safe without engendering too much fear?

There are a number of ways to encourage safety without fear. To begin with, we want to empower children with a positive approach. You can start by giving your children “The Super-Ten Safety Rules” which both adults and kids should follow. Consider this: most children navigate their day-to-day world with rules. (They’ve got classroom rules, game/sports rules, house rules.) When you put safety into a framework of rules, it’s very clear to them what is “ok and not ok”. This empowers kids to recognize when a situation is unsafe or if someone else’s behavior is inappropriate… because a rule is being broken. The Super Ten Safe-Smarts Rules are kid-friendly “Do’s & Don’ts” that make sense to children.

Another way to encourage safety without fear is to use lots of child-friendly language such as: an uh-oh feeling, thumbs up or thumbs down (to define what’s ok/not okay), boss of my body, tricky people instead of “stranger.” A tricky person is someone who tries to “trick” you into breaking a safety rule. When presented in this context, it’s empowering rather than fearful.

Lastly, kids take their cues from us. If parents present the safety concepts in a loving, matter-of-fact manner the way you’d present any other family rule, such as crossing the street, hot stoves, even table-manners, there is no need to introduce the fear factor. The goal is to let our children feel empowered.

How do parents get their children to trust their “uh-oh” feeling? How do parents teach children what their “uh-oh” feeling is?

The “uh-oh” feeling is that feeling we get in the pit of our stomach when something just doesn’t feel right. It’s really called our instinct. Even very young children are “in-tune” with their instincts and get an “uh-oh feeling” when something seems wrong. Our job is teach kids that their feelings are very important, and that they can tell us anytime that “uh-oh feeling” comes up. We can describe the uh-oh feeling in many ways: it makes us feel “yucky”, scared, sad, or mad. Kids innately trust their “uh-oh feeling” unless they are continually being taught to ignore it or keep quiet about it. Simply put, we need to honor our children’s feelings whenever they tell us something or someone just doesn’t seem right. By denying children the ability to express their uh-oh feeling or trying to talk them out of it, parents will eventually de-sensitive a child to their own instincts.

What are the top ten tips for parents?

  • Teach your child a variety of ways to say “NO” to someone whose actions make them feel uncomfortable. Phrases like: “STOP IT”, “I DON’T LIKE THAT”, “THAT’S NOT OKAY”, “YOU CAN’T TOUCH ME LIKE THAT!”
  • Teach your child to make a loud verbal and physical commotion if anyone ever tries to grab or touch them inappropriately – even someone they know. Let them know they can use their strong, “outside voice” if they ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable with anyone.
  • Instruct children to maintain a safe distance from any person or vehicle that they “don’t know” — (2-3 arms length). Older children should always use the buddy system when they’re out on their own.
  • If something or someone gives them an “uh-oh feeling”, children should run in the opposite direction, and yell loudly for help. This includes getting away quickly even from someone they know, if that person makes them feel “yucky” or “weird”.
  • Instruct your child to NEVER LEAVE a public place to look for you, no matter what. Let them know you would never leave without them; you would never go to your car or the parking lot without them, etc.
  • Listen to your child. If they consistently don’t want to be around a particular person, such as a babysitter, relative, or family friend, don’t force them. They may be sensing “a red flag” that you are unaware of.
  • Don’t write your child’s name on the outside of any personal belongings such as a jacket or backpack.
  • Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection. Do not force them to hug or kiss another person.
  • Volunteer at your child’s school or other activities whenever possible. Get to know the adults who interact with your children on a regular basis, i.e. coaches, counselors, etc.  Being a “visible” participant in your child’s life is an excellent deterrent to an offender.
  • Pay attention to clues and cues in other adults’ behavior around your child. A predator’s grooming tricks can be very subtle at first. Trust your instinct.

Could you dispel the top three myths about child sexual abuse and abduction?

Myth: Those who abuse children are only strangers, never a friend or relative.

Fact: 90 per cent of childhood sexual abuse happens to kids by someone they know NOT by a stranger.

Myth: It’s only the “weird” looking guy or someone with a weapon who abuses children.

Fact: Most child predators seem friendly and look unassuming. Most do not use a weapon or violence. They use “grooming techniques” to gain a child’s trust and create a secretive relationship.

Myth: Stranger-danger abductions are on the rise.

Fact: Over the past 10 years, non-familial abductions have significantly decreased. Unfortunately, today’s media focuses heavily on these types of occurrences which adds to the myth of stranger-danger.

Pattie Fitzgerald is the founder of Safely Ever After, Inc. and has been teaching child predator safety seminars and workshops to adults and children for over 10 years. Formerly a preschool teacher, Ms. Fitzgerald is certified as a child educator and children’s visitation monitor. Known for her non-fearful “mom-vibe” approach, Pattie has been featured on numerous radio and television programs including Good Morning America, CNN Headline News, and MSNBC. Her articles on child safety have been published in newspapers, trade journals, and websites across the country. For more information, please visit:

Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Identity, Safety