Once long ago, I reminded my four-year-old son to stay in our house while I took a short shower. Just the two of us were home, so I was startled and a bit alarmed to hear my little boy talking with someone when I got out of the shower. With a towel wrapped around my wet hair and wearing only a bathrobe, I rushed into our living room. To my astonishment, my son had opened the door to a colleague who had stopped by unexpectedly to drop off some papers. With great hospitality, he had invited her into the house to sit down and wait for me and had even given her a glass of water.
As you might imagine, I was very embarrassed and grateful that nothing worse had happened. After my colleague left, I thanked my son for following his safety rule of staying in the house and for being so helpful. I then explained that I had forgotten to tell him another part of the rule, which is to Check First with his father or me before opening the door to anyone, even people we know, unless we had told him to expect them.
Although most people who come to your door will have good intentions, you need to remember that opening your door to someone provides this person with easy access to your home. As adults, we need to Think First about whether or not this is safe, especially for our children. As several delivery truck drivers have said, “My heart stops when I ring the doorbell, and a small child answers, with no adult in sight. Parents trust the uniform and the truck, and they don’t realize their kids might be vulnerable to someone with bad intentions.”
As children become more independent, you might give them permission to open the door to a few people they know well without checking first. Eventually, you and your kids will be ready for them to stay home alone. In order to do this safely, we at Kidpower recommend the following steps for making and rehearsing Safety Plans for opening the door and for being home alone.
- Assess what will work best for your family. Neighborhoods, houses, and children are different. How well do you know your neighbors? Do you live on a busy street or in a more isolated place? What are the potential hazards? How old, aware, and capable are your kids? Who are the people you feel safe having come into your home without your knowing ahead of time, each time. Are there times when your children might be close to your front door while you are in the shower, sleeping, working, gardening in the back yard, or otherwise not aware of what they are doing? Are your children ever going to be home alone without you? Keep re-visiting and adjusting your plan anytime your situation changes and as your children grow older.
- Be consistent. Make sure all adults who live with you or who are in charge of your kids agree to follow and uphold your safety plan. If one parent says, “Go answer the door” and the other one says “Check First”, kids are confused.
- Be specific. Remember that young people often tend to be literal and cannot read your mind. Tell kids exactly what you want them to do – and not do. Tell them exactly which people they may bring into your home and when they may or may not answer the door. Ask them to repeat their plan back to you to make sure you are all on the same page.
- Make sure kids know how to get help in emergencies. Practice how to call 9-1-1 or other emergency numbers. Make sure kids know and have phone numbers of their responsible adults as well as their address. Be sure they are comfortable using your phones. If young people are going to be home alone, make sure they have a way to get hold of you and someone else you trust. If possible, also make a plan to have a neighbor who is home be someone they can contact. Tell children and teens to get help anytime something makes them uncomfortable or someone’s behavior makes them worried or afraid.
- Rehearse and remind. Kids are more likely to be able to do what they have practiced than what they have only been told. Use the Kidpower practices below to prepare children to handle different situations. Help kids develop safety habits by posting reminder signs, reviewing the plan each day, and continuing to communicate with them about what they are doing and what is happening.
- As an adult, make it your habit to Think Before Opening the Door. Many adults open the front door automatically when someone knocks. This is not a safe habit at any age or in any neighborhood, no matter what its rate of crime. Remember, you can always choose to open the door. If you open the door, it might be hard to close it again. Think First so that you are confident that you feel good opening your home to the person on the other side. Practice talking through the door, such as, “Who is it?….I’m not interested, thanks!”
Doing the following Kidpower practices is fun, only takes a few minutes, and can make a tremendous difference to your children’s ability to be successful in using these skills in real life. If their adults are home, kids practice Checking First with the adults in charge before opening the door. If people of any age, including adults, are alone at home, we recommend they not pretend the home is empty. For this reason, the third practice listed here, which is a scenario about being home alone, we coach children to talk through the door but not to open it.
The ‘home alone’ practice also includes a Kidpower Safety Lie. At Kidpower, we say that it is okay to lie or to break a promise if you feel like you have to in order to be safe, and then, as soon as you can, tell and keep telling so that your adults know you needed to tell a Kidpower Safety Lie. If you feel like you need to tell a lie to be safe, then the people who love you and care for you need to know about the situation.
Practicing doing this at your actual front door and in places where you might be busy. Ask older kids and teens to suggest. Take turns practicing being the person at the door, the kid, and the busy adult. Make the examples interesting rather than scary.
Someone comes to the door when a parent is busy. Ask kids to imagine you are taking a shower and someone they know from your work or neighborhood has knocked on the door and asked for you. Stand in your shower with your clothes on – kids think this is hilarious. Pretend to wash your hair and coach them to say, “Our neighbor is at the door.” Pretend to be busy washing your hair, not to hear ,and say, “That’s nice, honey!” Coach them to persist and shout, “I am Checking First. Should I open the door?” Have them keep asking until you finally say, “Thank you for Checking First. Keep the door closed but ask them to wait a minute and I’ll be out as quickly as I can.”
A Fed-Ex truck comes to the house. Take a situation such as a child’s birthday or Christmas or another time when some packages might be coming. Practice at your front door – can a child see outside? Or is there a peephold they can look through. A younger child might just come and get you without answering the door. An older child can answer but needs to be clear that, in this scenario, they are not home alone. They can say, “Who is it?” Pretend to be a very friendly driver who says “Looks like some presents. Please open the door.” Coach the child to say, “I’ll get my parents.” Coach the child to come to you and ask. Say, “Thank you for checking first. We’ll go together.”
Kids are home alone, and someone they DON’T expect is at the door. Pretend to be a flower delivery person, a pizza delivery person, someone from your work, an older kid who wants to come over, or another person relevant to your family. Knock on the door or ring the doorbell. Coach the child to say, “Who is it?” Say who you are and ask the child to open the door. Coach the child to pretend to call to adult in the house, even if no one is there by yelling, “Mom! Our neighbor is at the door.” Coach the child to go back to the door and say, “She’s busy. Please come back later.” Ask, “Are you home alone?” Coach the child to make a safety lie that they are going to tell you about later and say, “No. My mom does not want to be disturbed, and says she will check with you later.”
Kids are home alone, and someone they DO expect comes to the door. If kids are old enough and skilled enough to be home alone and also to assess reliably whether the person at the door was definitely expected, then it is OK for kids to open the door to someone they are positive they expect. To set up the practice, say, “Let’s pretend I went to the store but told you, ‘Erika from my office will stop by to drop off papers from work. Please open the door to her and take the papers. Let’s practice.’ Then, pretend to knock or ring. Coach the child to say, “Who is it?” Say, in role, “I’m Erika. I work with your mom. I have papers for her.” Coach your child that it is fine now to open the door.
Now, review the earlier practice: say, “Pretend Erika left, and then another person came by!” Knock or ring. Coach the child to say, “Who is it?” Say, in role, “I’m from your mom’s book club. I have books for her.” This is not someone the child expected, so they will complete the practice without opening the door. Remind your child, “It’s my job to let you know if someone from my book club might drop off books. My friend might be offended or inconvenienced, and that’s okay. Your safety is more important than my friend’s inconvenience or offense.”
Change the details and the solutions to be relevant for your family. Remember that safety is an ongoing conversation – not a one-time discussion or practice, so keep reviewing, updating, and practicing your safety plans for opening the door and being home alone.
Although most people who come to your door will have good intentions, you need to remember that opening your door to someone provides this person with easy access to your home. We at Kidpower recommend the following steps for making and rehearsing Safety Plans with kids for opening the door and for being home alone. Doing the following Kidpower practices is fun, only takes a few minutes, and can make a tremendous difference to your children’s ability to be successful in using these skills in real life.
Our Kidpower Safety Comics series provide an easy, fun way to introduce and practice safety skills with children and youth.
Published: August 12, 2015 | Last Updated: May 5, 2016