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kp-before-after-webRecently, as I was walking out of a school after a teacher training, a mother who was on her way to pick up her kids from the aftercare program saw the Kidpower logo on my shirt.

“What’s Kidpower about?” she asked.

“We teach social safety skills so kids – and adults – can have more fun and fewer problems with people,” I explained.

The mom looked worried and asked the question that we have been asked thousands of times since we started Kidpower in 1989. “How do you teach kids to be safe without making them scared?”

I smiled and explained, “Instead of using fear to talk about all the bad things that can happen, Kidpower makes it fun for kids to learn the skills they need to be safe! And you can do that too!”

The mom looked upset and sighed, “It’s just that I feel so scared myself! Every time, I hear another story about a child getting hurt, I look at my own two kids, and my heart gets full of fear. They are so precious and so innocent. I just want them to be happy and not have anything bad happen to them!”

I touched her arm gently and said, “I understand. Scary things do happen. Unfortunately, the media makes it sound as if they are happening to almost everyone, almost all the time. But it’s like cars. Most of the time, we can be safe with cars if we follow the rules of the road and teach our kids how to be careful when they cross the street. It doesn’t help our kids to talk about the bad things that will happen if they do get hit by a car. Instead, we can joyfully hold hands and practice with our kids how to be safe around cars – and calmly protect them while they are learning, until they are prepared to cross the street safely on their own. And that’s how Kidpower teaches children to be safe with people.”

The mom thanked me and said that she would look forward to learning more.

Because anxiety often gets in the way of teaching kids about safety, in our child protection workshops for parents and teachers, we sometimes ask adults to think about children – about themselves as kids, their own kids, or other kids in their lives – and to think about their feelings about words like, “Bullying, Violence. Abuse. Assault. Abduction.”

Across the boundaries of many different countries in many different languages, we have heard people give the same answers to describe their feelings. “Worry … Anger … Frustration …Terror … Rage … Regret … Hatred … Denial … Fear … Despair … Disgust … Revenge … Sadness … Disbelief … Pain … Horror … Kill!” The words go on and on and on.

I have come to believe that caring adults throughout the world share a huge pool of grief about the terrible harm that people sometimes inflict on children.

We have every right to these feelings. We deserve support for them in settings with other adults. Many families have histories of escaping from war or of having faced abuse or violence. These traumatic experiences can cause huge anxiety that can be hard to separate from seeing what is best for our kids.  The problem is that, if we dump our load of upset feelings onto children when we are trying to teach them to protect themselves, it will be harder for them to learn.

One risk is that children will take in our feelings and become overly anxious. They might start worrying all the time about “bad guys” hurting them or about being bullied and nobody liking them.

Other children are likely to become so overwhelmed with our acting upset that they will go into complete denial or use magical thinking to make themselves feel safe. They might cover their ears and say, “This is so boring! You already told me that! I know! I know! I know!” They might say, “I don’t need to worry about bad guys or bullies, because I’ll just zap them.”

It helps to remember that children experience their world in a different way than we do. Long ago, when I took my first self-defense course, I was filled with sorrow at all the tragic stories of so many women who had survived terrible experiences. After a particularly hard class, I came home to my innocent, safe, and happy eight-year-old daughter. I gathered her into my arms and burst into tears.

Being used to her emotional mother, my child sat calmly on my lap as my tears dripped into her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, Mommy?”

“It’s just that you’re such a wonderful kid,” I said sadly, “and I wish I could give you a better world to live in.”

“It’s all right, Mommy,” my daughter said cheerfully. “Look at it this way – if we were living in the time of the dinosaurs, we’d all have to worry about being eaten, all the time!”

Suddenly I realized that my fantasy of a safe perfect world for my child was just that – a fantasy – and not her reality at all.

Children’s favorite stories are often not about safe perfect worlds.  Instead, most much-loved books are stories about children being powerful in the face of danger.

As I explained to myself so many years ago– and as we have told countless parents ever since – our children do NOT need our fear. Our terror about what might harm them and our despair about the problems of the world will not help them. Instead, our children need our commitment to protect them until they are ready to protect themselves, our belief that they can stay safe most of the time, and our determination to teach them how to take charge of their own safety.

At Kidpower, we are committed to providing effective and empowering resources for learning and teaching social safety skills. Our vision is that the joyful practice of Kidpower strategies and skills will become ordinary in families, schools, and organizations everywhere. We are sharing the lessons we’ve learned over the past 27 years as widely as possible – and would love to hear from you. Send us your stories, and we will listen. Email us at safety@kidpower.org with your questions, and we will answer as best we can.

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Published: September 29, 2016   |   Last Updated: September 29, 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.