Ask the Expert: Talking Child Safety with Gary Sikorski

08 13 2015

Want to talk to your children about safety, but don't know where to start? Well, we talked with Gary Sikorski - an extremely active and sought-after safety instructor with over 25 years' police experience - to help you begin the conversation. Gary, a retired Deputy Police Chief who has vast experiences in several areas of law enforcement, now serves as the Primary Defensive Tactics Instructor at the Wayne County Regional Police Training Center and has trained over 3,000 recruits and officers. He also instructs students in the SABRE Personal Safety Academy and College Safety Awareness Program.

Here's our interview with Gary:

SABRE: At what age should parents start talking to their kids about personal safety?

GS: I think the lessons can start at a very young age. Even more important than talking to your children about personal safety, parents and caretakers should continuously set a proper example. Personal safety shouldn’t be something that is scary or presented in a fearful manner; it should really be a series of habits. One of my training mottos is: A person who is habitually prepared to protect themselves or their family, will rarely have to.

I would rather avoid a situation than have to respond to a problem or threat. Being aware of your surroundings, demonstrating good safety practices and explaining why you are doing the things you are doing (with age appropriate explanations) go a long way in preparing your children to be safe on their own. And really, isn’t that the ultimate goal? Our kids are never safer than when they are with us. The goal is for them to be safe as they venture out on their own as they get older.

Personal safety is not just about protecting yourself from crime. It is also about keeping safe and avoiding accidents and other dangerous situations. For example, as many or more police officers are killed each year due to accidents (e.g., vehicle collisions, directing traffic, training accidents) as are feloniously killed in the line of duty. Therefore, officer safety training encompasses more than just firearms and defensive tactics. Officer safety training also involves precision driving, the importance of wearing seatbelts, physical fitness and more.

SABRE: In terms of ages, are there different conversations and topic that should be covered at different times?

GS: I would break down age appropriate conversations about safety the following way.

Starting at an early age, children/toddlers should be taught their full name and their parents' names. As they get older, they should know their address and phone number. Children should also be taught the proper names for their private parts. My wife was very wise when it came to these issues and always used the proper terminology with our two daughters when they were very young. It was done in a very matter-of-fact manner. Now, many experts recommend this.

Children should be taught to stay within sight. Try to use everyday situations to impress the importance of staying close, not wandering off and not going somewhere with someone they don’t know. It is difficult for children this age to conceptualize hypothetical situations. Be very clear about right and wrong and setting and enforcing boundaries.

As they progress into and through pre-school, they should learn when and how to call 911. There are numerous examples of young children who called 911 during emergencies. Almost all talk about how the parents had taught them how to dial 911, even going as far as having the children practice dialing 911 and roleplaying a conversation with a 911 operator.

Unlike the typical "Stranger Danger" lesson of not talking to strangers that we were all taught growing up, today we emphasize not going anywhere with a stranger. As a matter of fact, teaching your children how to talk to a stranger, and how to pick someone to help them could easily be the most important tools you arm your children with to safe when they are not with you. In the books, The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift, author Gavin DeBecker explains it is more important to teach your children to never go anywhere with someone they don’t know, than to simply tell them not to talk to strangers. Start at early age of encouraging your children, under your supervision, to ask for directions to their favorite ice cream or cookie store at mall. This is a manufactured teachable moment in which you can guide your children on who to go to for assistance. It is always better for your children, and even you for that matter, to approach and pick the person to seek assistance from rather than have them pick and approach you. What are the odds that you would pick a predator, opposed to trying to determine if the person offering to assist you is a Good Samaritan or an opportunistic predator? For instance, instructing your children to go to a woman with children is always a safer bet, if they ever become separated from you. Intuitively, this seems to make sense but statistics also support this rationale. Of the adult prison population, women comprise a mere .07%.

As children enter and navigate elementary school, children should be taught that adults should not seek assistance from children. Therefore it is okay not to speak to someone who attempts to approach them asking for help to find their "lost" dog, for example. Children should be taught to stay with a friend and use the buddy system when out in public.

Children should be taught about online safety and to never give or share personal information with someone online or on social media.

Age appropriate discussions about sex should begin in grade school and continue through middle and high school.

Bystander intervention is a very important discussion to have with middle and high school students. It applies to bullying as well other group situations where someone may be targeted and taken advantage of because they are impaired due to alcohol or drugs.

SABRE: When we say personal safety, what messages do you think are the most important for kids to understand?

GS: I think it is critical that kids understand they play a very important role in their own safety. It is also very important that they have a sense that they deserve to be safe and that they deserve to be treated with respect. They need to have options for avoidance as well as the knowledge and tools to defend themselves, if they have to.

SABRE: Do you have any resources you could share to help parents have these conversations?

GS: Besides Sabre’s Personal Safety Academy, one of the best resources I found that truly changed my thinking and approach to personal safety are the books I mentioned by Gavin Debecker, The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift. These really should be mandatory reading for all safety/self-defense instructors and parents.

SABRE: Are there any products you think kids could carry for their parents' peace of mind when it comes to protecting themselves?

GS: I think there are a few safety products that can be used to increase a child’s safety and a parent’s peace of mind. Personal alarms are a great way for a child to summon help and draw attention in an emergency. As they get older and become teenagers and college students, pepper spray is a great personal safety device. These products serve two important purposes.

  1. They are a force multiplier and increase a person’s ability to respond during a very critical and stressful moment.
  2. The very act of carrying such a device makes a person more aware of their surroundings and potential dangerous situations. For example, I always tell students that carrying pepper spray not only will help them defend themselves if they are attacked, but each time they carry it and have it at the ready, it is the equivalent of me tapping them on their shoulder reminding them to "look around," "be aware of your surroundings," "avoid dangerous or risky behavior," etc.

SABRE: What is the #1 thing you want to convey to parents regarding the safety of their children?

GS: The number one thing that I want to impress upon parents is that they are responsible for teaching their children about safety and for KEEPING THEM SAFE. In spite of all the things I talked about - setting the proper example, teaching children who to go to for help, empowering them to become self-reliant - it is the parent’s job to keep their children safe and not leave it up to their children. We see show after show about teaching and telling children not to play with guns, or not to talk with a stranger, and then the children are tested (with the parents watching nearby). The young children, more often than not, end up playing with the gun they find, are easily persuaded to go off with a stranger looking for his dog, or get into a vehicle.

The lesson here is up to a certain age; you should not expect a child to be able to fend for themselves. You would never send your young child into a bank alone to negotiate the terms of a loan or mortgage, or into a car dealership to negotiate the purchase or lease of a vehicle, all very unimportant when compared to the value and well-being of your child. If that’s true, then why would you ever allow them to negotiate on their own for the most valuable thing in the world to you: their precious life, safety and well-being?