THE biggest fear and worry for any parent is how to keep their children safe.
Whether it is a trip to your local park, a familiar family holiday location, shopping or the wilds of Mongolia, keeping your children safe is a concern causing inevitable stress, worry and anxiety. I get nervous about the childrens’ safety before each and every trip we take and had nightmares in the weeks leading up to leaving for our round the world trip.
Travelling with children is not something undertaken lightly or frivolously, and the never ending high alert parents encounter on a trip can be draining and exhausting.
We believe it is important to be prepared and to mitigate risk in advance rather than avoid it altogether. With mobile phones, instant messaging and GPS trackers technology can help to keep your children safe but it is not 100% reliable. Constant vigilance and monitoring prevents most safety issues but as all parents know, even with the best care and attention, problems can and do happen – often in a split second.
The safety procedures outlined below are measures we take to help ensure our childrens safety. They may seem paranoid and over protective to some and woefully naïve inept to others. Whatever you choose to implement, do it consistently and safety precautions will become second nature.
Before you leave home
Give each child an emergency contact list to keep in their luggage and explain what it is for; should the unthinkable happen to both parents, the children will know who to contact back at home. Encourage them if possible to memorise at least one number from this list. Leave copies of this list with the relevant named people at home so they are able to contact other people on the list. Keep a copy in adult luggage too to help babies and young children.
Choose a ‘safe word.’ As a family, decide in advance on a safe word; a personal word that has meaning to your family that is not generally used in daily conversation- perhaps the name of a favourite toy, pet or place. When out and about or particularly in the company of others, if anyone (parent and child) feels unsafe, unsure or uncomfortable, uttering the safe word means everyone drops everything and leaves immediately. No questions asked, no delay. Luckily, we have never had to use it but we have practised it and have reinforced when, how and why to use it.
Choose a family password. It is all too easy for someone to learn the name of your child making it appear that they are a friend and someone to be trusted. We hate personalised items of clothing or accessories for this reason! Drill into your child to ask for this password if approached by someone they do not know, no matter where they are. Does your child know that the person supposedly picking them up or waiting at a rendezvous point is a trusted person that you have actually asked to meet them? Is the person telling your child to ‘come this way’ someone to be trusted? Or the person asking them to open the door to the holiday accommodation because a parent has allegedly sent them to fix something? Sadly, not even friends, colleagues, acquaintances – and the old favourite ‘someone in uniform’ – can be fully trusted. Have a family password and teach your child to ask ‘what is the password?’
I got this password idea from an article I read about a mother who suffered an accident with her children and had to go to hospital. Her unhurt children were waiting in a corridor outside when they were approached by ‘someone wearing a doctors coat’ who told them to come this way, that their mother had told him to pick up them up. The family had a password system and the person ran off when asked the password. Sadly, most child abductions are not planned, they are opportunistic.
As difficult as it is, talk to your children about stranger danger. Talk about what to do or say if someone, anyone – even a friend – is making them feel unsafe, uncomfortable, scared or trying to make them go somewhere with them. It is not an easy topic to talk about – I feel it shatters a childs’ trusting innocence – and I hated discussing it with my children. I do not want them to assume the worst of someone but I need them to be aware of their own personal safety and to be prepared. Practise how to get away and what to do; we talked about how it is acceptable in this situation to kick, scratch, bite and scream. We taught them to shout ‘this is not my mum/dad’ to draw attention to their plight. We have taught them never to approach someone in a car asking for directions, to run into a shop if they feel they are being followed, to try to walk facing oncoming traffic etc. It really is a horrible conversation to have but sadly, an essential one.
Decide as a family what to do if someone gets lost or separated and role play it. Each family will have their own preferred way of doing this – stay still and wait, go back to the last place you were at, find someone in uniform but we feel each of these comes with its own risk. Right or wrong, we teach our children to go to the nearest shop and tell the person behind the counter that they need help, to ask them to phone us using the information on the lanyard but not to go anywhere with that person.
Know what you will do as a family if you get separated on public transport. Trains, trams, underground trains are so busy it is frighteningly simple for families to get separated. Make sure adults know the system too!!!
Out And About
Give each child a laminated ID card/lanyard to carry daily. Each child gets a card to slip into a credit card sized clear pocket which they can either wear like a lanyard or clip onto their waist/clothes/pocket. Before a trip we create blank ID cards in the local language of where we are going- Google translate is perfect for this. The ID says ‘My name is…, I am lost…, please call my mothers mobile number….,please telephone my accommodation on…’. Then we fill in the missing information for each location or country as needed and discard when leaving. If staying in an Airbnb or private accommodation, we add the address and telephone number of the host. We never travel without them.
If staying at a hotel or hostel, give each family member a business card from the hotel/hostel with the name, address and phone number of the accommodation in local dialect. Add to the ID lanyard. Attach one to a stroller. If the reception desk does not have cards, ask the manager/owner to write it out for you.
In crowded shops, malls, airports, train stations etc where you may be for several hours, designate a meeting point as soon as you arrive, in case you get separated. And make sure all the adults know it too!
Report a lost child IMMEDIATELY, before you search for them yourself. Many department stores, theme parks, transport hubs etc have a lockdown system; when a child is reported missing, the venue goes ‘into lockdown’ to prevent anyone from exiting until a full, accurate description is given of the missing child. Do not waste time looking yourself, instigate the lockdown; it is better to be embarrassed due to finding your mischievous child hiding under a display unit (number three child!) than to have missed the chance of preventing your child from leaving the site.
If you do not think the venue has a lockdown system and if it is possible to safely do so, split up and one adult head immediately for the exit to create your own ‘lockdown’ observance.
If possible to do so, make it known loudly and immediately to those around you that you have lost your child. Be loud and descriptive. I read a horrifying article about a child lost on a beach. The parents followed a military style search shouting a full description of their lost child. The description, rather than ‘a lost child’ spread quickly; thankfully the child was found soon afterwards further down the beach. He had been led away by a man who quietly dropped the childs hand and walked away when he had overheard the child’s description being shouted around. Horrifying, but it happens.
For trips to very crowded places – beach, theme park, sporting event etc – in addition to a designated meeting point, consider taking a ‘start of the day’ photo of your children. They don’t need to know that reason for the photos is that if they get lost you know exactly what they are wearing to aid searchers.
Consider dressing children in bright colours or patterns making them easy to spot in a crowd. I wouldn’t stand a chance doing this with my eldest children but my youngest child is still agreeable enough to be dressed in tartan trousers and a bright yellow fleece! You could spot him a mile away!!!
Move in pairs to prevent someone being separated alone. Encourage your children to look out for each other, to never leave someone alone. Go the public toilet together and leave together.
Think about how you walk. This may sound odd but it has proven useful to us on more than one occasion! In very busy places, and particularly when boarding public transport, we try to walk ‘one in front, one behind.’ This means one adult with children is in front but one adult is always behind. This prevents you loosing a child who has stopped to gawp at a shop window or do up their laces. It also prevents the tube or train doors closing trapping one child inside alone and the rest of you outside!
Try not to stand out. Try as best as you can to blend into your surroundings with what you wear and how you behave. Don’t wear inappropriate clothing for your surroundings, don’t carry your camera over your shoulder, don’t stand on the street checking your phone or a map (pop into a shop and do it discreetly).
Divide your money between you when out and about. Consider giving your children some emergency money – enough to make a phone call or to get a taxi back to your accommodation. Use money belts or neck wallets. hide money under an insole in your shoe (for a cheesy flavour!) or inside the lining of your bra. Just don’t forget it is there on laundry day! Be prepared so that if you loose a bag, or are pickpocketed or robbed, you still have enough money to get back to your accommodation.
Above all, trust your instincts about people, places and sites. Your childrens’ safety, and your own, comes before being polite.