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When it comes to safety, the Earliest Teachable Moment is the best teachable moment if this is done in a way that builds understanding and skills instead of creating anxiety or fear.

Worrying about leaving young children with other people is normal. Knowing what to watch out for and how to step in if you have a concern is crucial to the well being of your child. This article is from The Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers.

Children can benefit in many ways when they are cared for by different people – perhaps this helps secure a better income for the family, they can learn how to be close to people who are not their parents, and they can have the chance to learn and play with other children in a child-oriented environment.

At the same time, having harm come to their children is the nightmare of all the adults who love them. Worried parents ask questions like, “How can I make sure that the people I trust to care for my children will keep them safe and well?”

Danger can come in many forms, including in the form of poor judgment. A heart-breaking tragedy happened in San Jose, a city near my home. A babysitter entrusted with the care of a toddler left him with her roommate for a short time. The roommate walked over the train tracks with the toddler and then told the toddler to wait while she went back to get her baby in the stroller. Instead, the child followed her back across the tracks and was killed by a train.

Children are extremely vulnerable to injury or abuse as a result of the choices of the people who are taking care of them. Even with caregivers from accredited programs, abusive behavior is a risk. While a nanny was caring for a family’s baby, her boyfriend visited her. The baby’s family did not know that he was going to be there. The boyfriend got drunk and lost his temper, throwing the little boy against a wall.

Children are not born knowing how to take care of themselves. If they are not adequately supervised by responsible people making safe choices, children sometimes bully others or get bullied, molest others or get molested, wander off, climb up too high and fall, drown in even a couple of inches of water, get hit by cars, eat poisonous substances, and play with fire.

Children need adults to protect them until they have the skills, understanding, and capability to protect themselves. This means having adults close by and paying attention, especially in public places. A few years ago, a grandmother sat inside the house while her young granddaughters, ages five and three, played outside by the street. Suddenly, a man drove up, jumped out of his car, and kidnapped the older girl before the grandmother realized what was happening.

The good news is that dangers from caregivers can almost always be prevented. Letting someone else take care of the children we love means trusting this person with the most precious part of our lives. Parents and guardians are responsible for selecting and supervising the care of their children, whether the caregivers are individuals or the staff of programs like child care centers and schools.
At the same time, it is important to keep your balance. You do not want to overreact to an upsetting possibility in a way that damages your child’s trust in being left with other people.

For example, there was a three-year-old girl who loved to give herself and other children hickeys by sucking on the skin all over their arms and legs. The teacher worked hard to stop this behavior, but the children enjoyed the interesting phenomena of seeing red-brown spots emerge on their bodies. The teacher addressed the issue in circle time, with all the children’s parents, and with the little girl directly. Parents reacted very differently to this problem. Some were respectful and helped the teacher work on solutions. Others were angry and demanded that the little girl be forced to leave, which would have prevented her from learning how to change her behavior. One parent got so upset that she removed her own child from the program, depriving him of a loving, educational place with a teacher he adored. Eventually, the combined efforts succeeded in stopping the hickeys.  What was important was that the problem was addressed effectively without being ignored and without panic.

It is the job of adults to ensure that the environments where we put children and the people we entrust with their care are emotionally and physically safe. We recommend that adults have high expectations in assessing other caregivers in terms of the following standards.

  1. Good cleanliness practices – especially with food preparation, handling of illness, and toilet/bathroom practices – to prevent disease from spreading.
  2. Age-appropriate protection from hazards such as traffic, poisonous substances, sharp objects, water, fire, potentially dangerous people, and getting lost.
  3. Clear boundaries about touch, teasing, and play between all adults and children. This means that anything for fun or affection must be the choice of each person involved, safe, and allowed by the adults in charge. This also means that any touch required (such as touch for health or cleanliness) is known to the parents or guardians and is never a secret.
  4. Effective, respectful behavior management so that children are guided into interacting with others in positive ways and stopped when they are using destructive behavior without being punished, called names, or yelled at.
  5. Adequate supervision so that adults see what is happening with children, make sure that children are where they are supposed to be, and step in to help children solve problems positively rather than destructively.
  6. Specific permission from parents and guardians about any changes in terms of who will be with their children, what they will be doing, and where they will be going.
  7. Age-appropriate activities that will help the child to learn and to grow.
  8. Permission for older children to always be able to call you if they need help.
  9. At schools, camps, or youth groups, clear policies and practices in place about preventing bullying, molestation, and other violence.

People and organizations are not perfect, and situations sometimes change. Supervise the care of your children by:

  1. Researching carefully who will be with your children. Ask for ideas and recommendations from others. Look around. Is the home or room for younger children childproof? Is the atmosphere child-friendly? Are your concerns respectfully and comprehensively addressed? Or, do you feel talked down to as though you are worrying unnecessarily?
  2. Taking the time to keep checking in, including making unexpected visits. You should always have easy access to your children and be welcomed into their environments. If your child plays happily and then gets upset by seeing you, you can still monitor what is going on by staying out of sight.
  3. Raising concerns right away about any potential problems. Give feedback promptly, firmly, and respectfully. Insist on getting the answers you need. Don’t let the fact that a caregiver or teacher has a lot of education, acts in a charming way, or says what you want to hear stop you.
  4. Noticing changes in personnel, location, policies, and activities that might affect your child.
  5. Being clear about what your expectations are regarding who your child will be with, what your child will be doing, and where your child will be going.
  6. Being realistic. Teachers and child care workers have a very hard job and are often blamed for the behavior of children who come into the group care setting with many problems with boundaries and behavior. While it is the teacher’s job to keep control, she or he cannot prevent all hits, hurts, or upset feelings. Look for teachers who are working hard to help children to behave safely and appropriately. Look for teachers who address situations with you directly and who are making progress.
  7. Being honest about your own child’s behavior. Even happy healthy children sometimes have bad days or troubles with adjusting to being in a larger group environment. Be willing to hear critical comments about your children’s behavior, as these comments are designed to help your child be as successful as possible. Critical comments about specific behavior with a plan or question on how to help are appropriate. Critical comments that attack a child’s character or make unrealistic demands on you are not appropriate.
  8. Making sure that you really understand what is going on. If you think there is a problem, don’t jump to conclusions and get upset. Give yourself enough time to assess what is happening and what needs to be done. Go and observe for yourself.
  9. Treating issues that relate to the emotional and physical safety for your child as urgent. Don’t let fear of causing hurt feelings, embarrassment, offense, or inconveniences to anyone stop you from speaking up for your child’s safety and self-esteem.
  10. Expressing appreciation for what goes well. Teachers and child care staff are usually underpaid and overworked. Most of them are very loving and committed to the well-being of the children in their care. Make sure you let them know how much you appreciate what they do for your child and your family.

Remember, there is no such thing as an “over-protective parent,” and if someone calls you that, say proudly, “Thank you! I am just doing my job!” Your responsibility as a child’s parent or guardian is to be as protective as you feel is necessary while finding ways to give your child the opportunity to be with new people and go to new places.

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Published: March 8, 2012   |   Last Updated: May 26, 2016

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.