Health & Well-being

How to talk to about keeping safe

Parenting Place kids and safety

Whether its exploring a new swimming spot, racing bikes around the park or wandering to the dairy for an ice block, summer holidays offer our kids wonderful opportunities for freedom and fun. And while some age-and-stage-appropriate independence can be a good thing, parents everywhere soon start thinking about safety. Which is also a good thing – a very good thing! Our precious tamariki need our help to stay safe and make good choices.

Some constructive conversations can be just the ticket to get our kids thinking about danger within the safety of a hypothetical situation. Chatting openly (and calmly!) about potentially dangerous stuff provides a child the chance to store up for themselves some risk-management skills. Basically, good talks now can lead to good thinking down the track. So how do we talk to our kids about safety?

We find the balance, because there’s a tension here. We don’t want to frighten our kids with all the awfulness in the world. Anxiety isn’t good for them. They don’t need to be burdened with details of all the worst-case scenarios our over-active parenting brains can come up with, but some awareness of risk and danger is helpful.

What would you do if...

There is a balance between sending messages that make kids afraid to take any risks at all, and sending them out into the world with nothing but a marmite sandwich and a ‘she’ll be right’.

Overprotection is not helpful in the long run. Ideally, we want to create space for our kids to stretch their wings a little as they get older while equipping them with the confidence to assess risk and make wise choices. Learning how to manage risk is a really important life skill, and it’s especially important for kids to develop this skill as they get older.

A handy tool for practising risk-management is the “what would you do if…?” line of questioning.

Asking “what would you do if…?” invites kids to put themselves in hypothetical situations – some could be light and funny, some more serious – so they have a safe place to think through in advance what would be a good and safe decision in the face of a risk. 

  • What would you do if you found a bag of lollies on the footpath?

  • What would you do if aliens landed a spaceship on the trampoline?

  • What would you do if I forgot to pick you up after cricket?

  • What would you do if a stranger said that I’d asked them to pick you up from the park?

  • What would you do if I was late to pick you up from the bus stop?

(This last one happened to me recently – I was late, just a little bit, to pick up my daughter and her friends from the bus stop. They felt a bit uncomfortable waiting for me so they went into the nearby café. I congratulated them on their good thinking and problem-solving, while apologising, buying caramel slice and promising to never be late again.)

A hypothetical situation is a safe place to brainstorm and problem-solve.

You can throw these questions into any conversation throughout the day – in the car, talking about something that’s happened in the news, or around the dinner table in response to the stories kids bring home from school.

A hypothetical situation is a safe place to brainstorm and problem-solve, and to file away some strategies of what to do if you ever had to deal with that situation in real life. Even seemingly ridiculous hypothetical scenarios empower kids to think about “what ifs” and encourage creative thinking and troubleshooting.

Look before you leap

And then there are some practical things to talk about. Asking questions is a handy technique here too, as opposed to the lecture format that parental safety briefings are inclined to take.

  • How far can you go on your bike without an adult?

  • What do you need to check before you jump into water?

  • In what circumstances are you allowed to swim by yourself?

  • When do you need to wear your bike helmet?

  • If the footpath is bumpy, should you skateboard in the middle of the road?

  • If the stray dog at the park is growling, should you pat it on the head to make it feel better?

  • If Grandma gives you $20 for Christmas, can you spend it all on lollies at the dairy?

The family rule book

Having some agreed upon family rules and boundaries in place also provides helpful scaffolding for our kids. These can then be revisited as often as required so kids have a clear understanding of your expectations around what they can get up to and where the limits are. Kids can then explore within boundaries they are familiar with and quickly recognise things that are off limits in your family.

Stranger danger?

Rather than focusing on the ‘types of people’ that could cause harm, The New Zealand Police encourage parents and caregivers to talk to children about what inappropriate behaviour looks like. We need to equip our kids with a strong radar for inappropriateness, and empower them to call it out. They also need to know that they can come to us with anything that has made them uncomfortable, at any time. Confidence to use their voice is an important safety tool.

The NZ Police reiterate that it’s really important for children to know how to identify unsafe behaviour and what to do if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

Talk to your kids about some of these safety basics – messages that might seem obvious to us, but need to be played on repeat for our kids and young people.

  • If you feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation.

  • Trust your ‘gut instinct’.

  • If the first person you ask doesn’t help, keep trying until someone does.

  • If you see anything suspicious, don’t hesitate to call 111.

This type of talk can be intimidating and daunting for parents. We’ve taken a light approach here, but that’s not to mean that keeping our kids safe is a trivial matter. It’s absolutely not. But ideally we stay calm in our all our conversations, as our hope in a good future for our kids offers them strength. With guidance, encouragement and space to stretch their wings, they’ll surprise even us with their safety smarts.

With thanks to our principal partner Toyota for their support
Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.


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