Tonight, Dateline NBC will start a series showing stories using hidden cameras and actors to test children’s abilities to follow their parents’ instructions to make safe and ethical choices. The announcement encourages parents to watch and discuss this show with their children – which we do NOT recommend. Tricking kids by setting up tests behind their backs might make interesting TV – but does NOT make children safer and can be emotionally damaging to them.
I believe that it undermines trust for children to be tested in such a sneaky way. Children need to believe that their adults are allies who are helping them to be successful, not testing them, letting some of them fail publicly – and then agreeing to have them publicly humiliated by broadcasting the results on TV.
There’s no good reason to teach using failure and shame. In fact, it’s traumatic for the kids and parents, rather than empowering. Being tricked and potentially publicly humiliated for failing tests just doesn’t build the skills and confidence that children need to make safe and wise choices when they are on their own out in the world.
This well-meaning but destructive idea about “testing” kids abilities to follow their parents’ instructions is not new. That’s why I devoted a section on this harmful practice in my new book, which is being released this month, The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
Here’s a story from the section, Being Tricked, Tested, or Scared Does NOT Make Kids Safer – Practice Does!
A few years ago, I got a call from a TV station that had set up a test for children. “We had an off-duty police officer pretend that he had lost his dog,” the reporter told me, “and then we filmed him approaching children in the park. Most of the children went with him all the way to his car. But one little girl grabbed her friends and pulled them with her as she ran to get help from their parents who were across the park. When we asked her parents why their daughter had behaved so differently from the other children, they said that it was because of a program called Kidpower.”
Frankly, I was glad that Kidpower had been so helpful but appalled at the messages this approach was giving the children. The TV program even showed the children watching the video of themselves making mistakes while their anxious parents lectured them, demanding to know why they had gone with a stranger.
Anyone who has seen one of our Kidpower workshops would agree that watching young people being coached to be successful in taking charge of their safety is educational, empowering, entertaining, and would make GREAT television!