Unfortunately, in many cases, a secret family code word can be ineffective at best – and possibly even put the child at greater risk. Here’s what to do instead.

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Many parents ask us at Kidpower about using a secret code word for their family; one that someone must know before their children can go with another adult. The idea is that someone might approach a child and say, “Your parents have told me that you need to come with me so we can __________ (do something plausible and important)!”

The child can ask, “What’s our family code word?” And, if the person knows the code word, then the child will be expected to trust that it is okay to go with this person.

With some families, some types of kids, and some situations, this might be a realistic strategy.

Unfortunately, in many cases, a code word can be ineffective at best – and possibly even put the child at greater risk.

For example, one child was approached by a stranger while she was waiting for the rest of her family to finish their ride at an amusement park. This man came towards her saying, “You need to come with me right now!”

Instead of immediately moving away from this man and going to the ticket collector at the front of the ride for help, this girl asked the man, “What is our family code word?”

Suddenly, the man, who had gotten closer while they were talking, tried grabbing her. Thankfully, this girl ran away – but it would have been safer for her to leave and get help immediately!

Some older children can remember a code word, keep it a secret, and use it appropriately; but many can’t. Think of how hard it can be for many of us to remember the passwords to different programs on our computers!

Tricking some children into saying the code word is also a possibility. If someone has bad intentions, they might try asking something like, “Your code word is ‘sea anemone,’ right?”

“No,” the child might say. “It’s ‘octopus.'”

“Oh, that’s right! Octopus! Let’s go then!”

Even with someone they know, instead of having children trying to figure out whether or not an adult they don’t expect has the right code word and is therefore permitted to take them somewhere else, we believe children will be safer if their adults tell them ahead of time who will take them where they need to go – and to practice checking first before going with someone else if that is not already the plan.

Practice having kids say “I have to check first!” and going to an adult in charge, or calling their adults, to check before going anywhere with someone they don’t expect, even if they know that person.

What is YOUR experience with the use of family code words and situations where kids need to know what to do if someone they don’t expect comes to pick them up or asks them to go with them? What has worked? What hasn’t worked? We’d love to hear from you!

Unfortunately, in many cases, a secret family code word can be ineffective at best – and possibly even put the child at greater risk. Here’s what to do instead.

Note: This article is based on The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

(Are you a member? Sign-up or Login for direct downloads and free access to 100s more Kidpower resources.)

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Published: April 16, 2015   |   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.

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