‘No!’ and ‘uh-oh’: talking safety

During the toddler years, you move from baby to big kid, from baby-wearing to holding hands, from “Ah goo” to “No!” complete with foot stomping. 

This new independence is breathtaking, in every sense of the word. You clap, hoot and holler as your child jumps into the pool — your loving arms outstretched and waiting, heart beating fast. You laugh as you fight to keep up.

You thrill: “Look at what you can do!” You fear: “How do I keep you safe?”

During these years, you watch your child start charming the ladies at the grocery store. Perhaps he gets his first invitation to an independent play-date. As your toddler starts stepping out into the world-at-large, two things occur to you simultaneously:

The world is beautiful and it is a joy to explore it with your child.

The world — with its unsettling dark corners — is not good enough for your child.

You think back to your own youth — afterschool specials featuring a mysterious blue van, the neighbor your mom told you to stay away from and the older boys who used to chase you and your friends home from school. 

You think to present day — overexploited Hollywood sex scandals, the ubiquitous and often unsavory Internet, every darn episode of CSI.

Sidestepping ‘stranger danger’

Abduction and sexual abuse top the list of parental fears and, yet, the idea that someone would harm your child is so crippling that many parents immediately push the thought away and simply hope for the best.

Maybe you’ve already tried to start the conversation with your toddler and, in the process, unwittingly cracked open a can of worms. 

With all their curiosity, toddlers are bound to take the conversation into areas that you hadn’t thought of. What about the nice man at the bookstore? He helps us pick out stories, but he was a stranger. You try to explain that it’s not juststrangers, but that people we know can hurt us, too. But Caroline’s mommy is nice, right? Uncle Will is nice, right? 

You quickly realize that there are no right answers to these quesations. Caroline’s mommy is nice, sure, but so are the people who mess with kids. Can you say that? Would you dare say that to a 3-year-old? Do you want to burden your amazingly free-spirited 2-year-old with a murky heap of paranoia? And how much is she capable of understanding? 

So. How do you teach your toddler to be safe in the big, bad, beautiful world without confusing or frightening her? 

Better strategies 

Enter Alison Feigh, program coordinator at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, an organization dedicated to providing crisis relief for families dealing with child exploitation or abduction. The JWRC doesn’t stop with victim assistance. They provide education to communities to prevent these scenarios from happening in the first place. 

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Feigh and was completely blown away by her wealth of knowledge, as well as her calm and efficient way of answering the tough questions. She’s also written a pretty cool children’s book about personal safety that reads like any normal story. It’s called I Can Play It Safe and it’s now in my family’s nightly rotation.

As we talked, one of the first things she emphasized was the misconception of “stranger danger.” As we all sort of know — but maybe have a hard time wrapping our head around — most cases of sexual abuse and abduction involve someone the child already knows. 

In recent times, this has brought about a movement to avoid the word “stranger” and replace it with “tricky person.” That’s not the best approach, according to Feign. 

“It’s a kid’s job to be a kid,” she says. “It is our job as adults to keep them safe. If we give them age-appropriate rules and guidelines, they are not burdened with figuring out who is tricky.”

Empowered explorers

The JWRC favors encouraging your children to explore the world, empowered with the safety tools you’ve given them. 

In the toddler years, the JWRC suggests starting with the basics:

  • Teach your child their name and their guardian’s name.
  • Ask that they stay within sight.
  • Teach correct names for body parts.
  • Explain that private parts are different.
  • Start explaining the “uh-oh” feeling. Your child should know to tell a caregiver if they are feeling scared or confused. 
  • “No means no, when it comes to your body.” Of course, “No” might be your toddler’s favorite word. Explain the difference between saying no to feel safe and saying no in defiance. 
  • Keep in mind that this is the beginning of a life-long dialogue with your child about personal safety. 

It’s ridiculously scary to go there, I know. The flipside is that you will feel less scared once you start empowering yourself and your child with simple safety rules.

Find more information on keeping kids safe at every age jwrc.org


Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is the mother of two. She's helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula. 
Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.