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Teaching Kids to Be Safe

January 7, 2013


Most of the time people will not bother you if you walk with awareness and confidence.

Irene van der Zande

Founder and Executive Director

KidPower International

On a recent Sunday morning in Santa Cruz, 10 youngsters and their parents practiced saying “no” to some very tempting offers.

“I’ll take you to the toy store and let you choose anything you want, if you just let me play with your hair,” Irene van der Zande told one girl, who responded, “No!”

As van der Zande went around the circle offering extravagant and sometimes comical bribes, the children and adults coached and applauded each other in their firm refusals.

The workshop was hosted by KidPower International, an organization that trains children and their parents in violence prevention and self-defense. The workshops are designed to be fun, not scary, and teach practical, everyday skills, according to van der Zande, KidPower’s founder and executive director.

“We don’t run away from hard issues,” van der Zande says. “But we also don’t want to traumatize kids.”

Since 1989, Kidpower International has trained 80,000 children, teens and parents in eight countries. Workshops, tailored for different age groups, are available in several languages including Spanish, French, Cantonese and Tagalog.

Family safety rules

According to van der Zande, childhood safety depends on educating parents as well as youngsters.

KidPower encourages families to establish safety rules, such as checking with the adult in charge before going somewhere with someone, arranging where to meet if the family is separated, and making sure kids know what to do when they answer the door.

At the Santa Cruz workshop, kids ages 4 to 8 practiced the “No Game” with their parents. Facing each other in pairs, they took turns yelling “No!” louder and louder. Some children snarled with mock ferocity, and others dissolved into giggles, while van der Zande coached, “From your belly, let’s hear a strong, loud ‘No!’”

Confidence, not fear

Although recent high-profile kidnappings have made many parents fearful, KidPower teaches them positive ways of talking about safety so children can learn the skills without absorbing adult fears, according to van der Zande.

By doing role-plays with their children, for example, parents help them practice being assertive and setting boundaries.

“Most of the time people will not bother you if you walk with awareness and confidence,” van der Zande says. “So we show what that means and the children practice.”

The more often children practice sticking up for themselves or checking with trusted adults, the more skills and confidence they gain.

Boundary skills

At KidPower, for example, children role-play three levels of setting boundaries.

One child practices telling another to stop playing with her hair. Van der Zande demonstrates:

  • “You look me in the eye, take my hand away, and say ‘please stop playing with my hair.’”
  • If that doesn’t work, “Stand up, make a fence with your hands and say, ‘I said stop.’”
  • If the person gets offended, “You say, ‘I like you and I want you to stop.’”

Rights and respect

The workshop also gives children permission, for example, to not talk to someone on the street, or to not go with someone even if they know that person, says John Luna-Sparks, a social worker at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. And a family member in the same workshop is also learning that a child does have the right to say no.

After participating in the program with his son and two daughters, Lloyd Latty says he realized that childhood safety begins at home, with parents respecting children’s wants, needs and boundaries.

“I think [the workshop] gave [kids] a vocabulary to express their feelings about what they wanted done or stopped and a sense of power to go with those feelings,” Latty says.

Success stories

Jerilynn Shaker, East Bay program coordinator for KidPower, says she was surprised to hear her daughter speak up from the back seat one day, saying: “Daddy, you need to put your seat belt on. It’s not a choice, it’s about your safety.”

Other parents have reported seeing their children stand up to bullies and avoid unwanted interactions with strangers using the techniques they learned in KidPower, van der Zande says.

KidPower will have a chance to measure its effectiveness, thanks to an evaluation grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Research on similar programs has shown they do increase children’s knowledge about how to handle difficult situations.

Originally written by Megan Lindow.