Fairly recently, our six-year-old son got lost in a mall hypermarket. For the first five minutes, we were fairly certain he’d pop up again with a bit of loud name calling. When he failed to show, the next 10 minutes were spent searching the favourite aisles (comics and toys) and telling ourselves not to worry – this was Dubai after all. What’s the worst that could happen?
When he’d been gone for 25 minutes, and nobody had seen him at all, we were blathering, terrified wrecks and well on our way to calling the police.
Sure, we’d talked with him about how some people are bad – and that you should never speak to strangers – especially if they offer you sweets, or ask you to go with them. Would he remember our mobile numbers, (which we’d made him repeat by rote)? Had we been too relaxed about such dangers precisely because of where we live? In short, had any of it sunk in?
Thankfully the lessons did pay off and he eventually went to a customer service desk at the far end of the store and gave them my number. The relief was indescribable…
In the cold light of day, you rationalize. After all, child abductions by strangers are statistically incredibly rare. Even in gigantic, crowded countries like the US, where the crime rates are comparatively much higher than the UAE, less than two per cent of all missing children cases are categorized as ‘kidnapping by a stranger’. But as recent local press reports have worryingly shown, teaching your children about stranger danger, and being aware of the risks – however small – is something all parents should be taking more seriously. Peter Moore, Head of Primary at Dubai British School, which has seen three students being approached by strangers in the past few months, is adamant that parents and children alike should be educated about the dangers of strangers.
He says, ‘There have been a range of incidents across Dubai involving various schools, and we [the schools] do tend to contact each other when things happen.’
Moore explains that parents can be lulled into a false sense of security, simply because of where they live. ‘On the whole, people feel very justifiably that Dubai is a safe place to live. But we mustn’t kid ourselves that things like this aren’t ever going to rear their heads – because as we’ve experienced, they do exactly that from time to time.’
He believes that schools and parents both need to reinforce the stranger danger message and teach children in the right way so that they know to exercise caution when approached by an unknown adult. ‘There are different things going on as far as we can see. There are groups of teenage boys who are trying to encourage young girls to get into cars with them. There might also be the possibility of organised gangs here – so children need to be sensitive to different scenarios.
‘One of the incidents we’ve had is when a child was in some public toilets with his mother and his sister. They were in the cubicle and he was waiting outside. He was approached by a woman, who tried to encourage him to go out and get into her car. Thankfully he made the right decision and went straight to the cubicle where his mother and sister were.’
Peter Moore explains that Dubai British School actually teaches stranger danger awareness as part of its curriculum. ‘We reinforce the message through assemblies. Class teachers follow that up within the classroom. It’s an easier forum for children to ask questions because the teacher can answer their queries. And then we send information home to parents and ask them to revisit it with their children. They take it seriously – and it’s just as well they do, because in the incidences our students have experienced, they have responded in exactly the right way.’
‘The one we’ve really worked on is the business of trying to lure children into strangers’ cars. That is the one that worries parents the most. The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter where you live, incidences like this can still happen at any time.’ Teacher and parent educator, Therese Sequeira believes we all have a responsibility to teach our children to act cautiously around strangers from toddlerhood. She says, ‘Teaching kids about stranger danger is really about teaching them protective behaviours. As parents cannot completely protect their children from danger at all times, kids need to learn how to protect themselves. They need to know about ‘safe people’ from an early age. Toddlers should be included in this, as they may wander off or be very trusting of other adults.’
Therese stresses that clear communication is key in explaining to children about the risks strangers can pose. ‘Talk to your kids about how to know when they are not safe - for example, if they can’t find their parents, or if an adult they don’t know approaches them. Discuss the behaviours these people may display. Perhaps the adult will be overly friendly or affectionate; they may ask the child to help them find a lost pet or offer them a sweet or toy; a stranger could say the parents have sent them to collect the child; or the child may simply feel frightened or uncomfortable. Make sure your children know that strangers often appear very friendly.’
Peter Moore adds, ‘One way I begin an assembly about stranger danger, is by showing the children a slide show of people’s faces. I then ask them to identify the bad ones. The very point you’re trying to make is that it’s impossible to differentiate between a ‘good’ person and a ‘bad’ person. It’s actually best for children to exercise caution with all strange adults. You just can’t assume that somebody has good intentions – or that they mean to harm you, so it’s important to teach children to be cautious – no matter how they are approached, or how they are being persuaded.’
For children who get lost in malls, and then need to seek an adult’s assistance, he advises, ‘There needs to be an agreed strategy about what children should do if they find themselves separated from you in a public place. Ideally, they should go into a nearby shop and ask a female member of staff to help them. Alternatively, they could approach a woman who has children with her, or someone in uniform, to ask for assistance.’
Teaching children about the dangers of strangers shouldn’t be about scaring them, says Therese Sequeira, and there are certain principles you can follow to help reinforce the message
•Know who ‘safe’ people are Assure your child that most adults are good people. Discuss who ‘safe’ people are. This may include family (uncles, aunts, grandparents), friends, parents of children’s friends, doctors, the school nurse, teachers, school staff, police, security guards, parents of children and shop employees.
•Instill good habits Get your children into the habit of telling you where they are going so that you know exactly where they are at all times.
•Stay together Teach your kids never to go anywhere alone – they need to be with an adult or friend they know well.
•Have clear rules Ensure your children know that you would never send a stranger to collect them (from school, a park, a shop etc). Also teach your children about different body parts and private areas on their body.
•Be vocal Teach your children some words they could say (or shout) like ‘NO!’ or ‘HELP!’ if they feel unsafe.
•Tell a trusted adult Make sure you child knows they need to tell you that a stranger has approached them or that they have felt unsafe with a person known to them.
•Watch your kids Keep an eye on how they interact with strangers who approach them. If you think they may be too trusting or overly friendly to other adults they don’t know, discuss this with your kids.
•Have good routines for when you are in public. Ensure your children know how close they need to be to you – perhaps so that they can see you and hear your voice.
•Discuss getting lost Teach them to go to a ‘safe’ adult or safe spot. It’s important to have these conversations every now and then and before you go on a holiday, to a theme park or a place where there will be a large crowd.
•Teach them your mobile number so they know it off by heart, or for little ones, write it on their arm or on a special ID wristband, so that if they wander off, you can always be contacted.
•Take a picture of them on your cell phone before you enter a crowded venue. That way, you’ll have an up to date photo of them (in their current clothes) to show security if they get lost.
•Role play a few different scenarios every now and then. Children tend to forget these things, so you may need to practice once every few months or annually for older children/teenagers.
•Supervise use of the internet at home or install kid friendly ‘safe surfing’ programs. Your kids should never give out any personal information online or to people they don’t know.
•Don’t scare them Remember that parents and children need to be alert about strangers, but not paranoid. Teach your child to behave in a way that will help them to be cautious and careful.
For more information contact Therese Sequeira on 050 552 9819.