Dear Dr. Debbie,
I had a mild scare with our daughters and their friends, ranging in age from 10 to 13 years old, at a community event this evening. There were several outdoor activities going on in the park and I felt it was reasonable to let them wander as a pack while I stayed in one area as a “base.” The five of them were explicitly told to check in with me if they were going to go anywhere other than where they had just decided to go. After about 45 minutes I thought it best to get a visual on them, since three of the girls are not my own. They were not where they said they would be. Resorting to calling my older daughter on her cell phone, I learned they had left the park to walk home. No checking in with me when they left. No checking in when they got home. Needless to say I was fuming, but calmed down sufficiently before getting back home to address the irresponsibility.
How can I impress my daughters with the need to stay more closely connected in public places without scaring them? Or, is a little fear what is required to help them keep from disappearing on me?
Don’t miss last week’s column Toddler Math Concepts— Good Parenting
Dear Mother Hen,
Your emotional response is reasonable and your concern for an effective approach is admirable. What happened is fairly common for tweens. They are easily pressured and emboldened among their peers and often act impetuously in small groups. Your directive to check in before going elsewhere was buried under all the chatter and buzz in their minds. Thankfully, your daughter was reachable by cell phone so you could be reassured, however there are some prevention steps your family (and friends) can take to allow for some independence yet prevent the anguish of being (momentarily) separated.
You had this “base” covered, however, it would be a good idea to review why you established a base in the first place before you take the girls out again. An easy-to-find landmark prevents anyone in the group from having to look everywhere if one or more get separated.
If children want to go off on their own, set a time they need to be back. Choose whatever is reasonable for the situation – 10 minutes to 2 hours – after which time if they are not back at the base or checking in by phone, you will be carrying out emergency procedures.
Since this recent incident occurred close to home, are your children acquainted with enough neighbors that they could knock on a door for help if needed? If not, time to organize a block party, group yard sale, holiday get together, or other means of getting to know the friendly folks in the neighborhood.
Public events generally have staff or volunteers identified by name tags or t-shirts, so review this fact before the next event you take the gang to. There may also be police officers, park rangers or other community helpers on duty that are ready and willing to help a lost child or adult. It takes a village to look after our collective children.
Routine Safety and First Aid
Some of our fears about leaving children on their own are due to their inexperience with physical dangers. Look into first aid courses for this age group through scouts or other community organizations. They can learn how to avoid typical dangers and how to address minor injuries. Crossing the street safely, for example, is a learned skill which differs for different streets. If your neighborhood has other hazards such as open water, cliffs, construction sites, electric lines, train tracks, etc. be sure your girls know the safety rules and learn how to prevent a tragedy. Review the path they will be taking so you can review avoiding the specific hazards and dangers.
This is a myth. More child abductions are committed by family members and close friends than by a malevolent stranger. You are already teaching your children about trust. We set examples by being more trusting of people who have earned it. We also set examples of being wary in certain situations. Watching a movie or television drama with your tweens is a good chance to talk about these ideas. Let your girls develop an ear for the butterflies in their stomachs and the raising of the hair on the backs of their necks. Instinct is a good sense to hone to build social competence, and social safety, among friends and foes.
Lots of good parenting to practice before your next excursion with the girls.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.