The number one safety rule that we teach our kids is to not talk to strangers. This topic is usually a bit confusing for kids because who is a stranger anyway? Is it the person you’ve never seen before? Or is it a person you don’t know too well? As you get older you learn to draw up some boundaries and you recognize who feel safe with based on your criteria, however, for children, it’s a little bit different than that. My 4-year-old son has never been the shy type, as a matter of fact there was a time I’d whisper in his ear and tell him to not say hi to everyone, but he’s a friendly boy. He understands that he’s not meant to talk to people that he doesn’t recognize or people that he’s not seen me talk to but he still has a hard time understanding why someone I talk to is not a stranger, instead, he immediately terms them as a friend and I cannot blame him because of his innocence.

As a parent, all you want to do is protect your children and prepare them for the unpredictable and diverse society that is constantly changing. Growing up, I was personally taught to respect titles and especially family members based on their age and how long we knew them but I was not taught to recognize inappropriate behaviour which in turn meant that at times my feelings were hurt or I was in awkward situations and could not say it because it was termed as disrespectful since they were older than me. However, now as a mother, I feel the need to shift my focus away from titles and emphasis on strangers to teaching my son that he needs to know inappropriate behaviour regardless of who the person is even when it’s a family member.

To shield children from potential harm we have to do a lot more than tell them that every time they see a person they don’t know they must be evil, while they have to avoid talking or entertaining people they don’t know the goal is to help them understand that it’s a lot more complex than it seems. Instead of teaching children that every single person is a threat it is better to equip them with safety precautions and give them the skills to analyze situations and spot bad behaviour.

Every time I let my son know that family comes first I also have to remind him that they are our relatives by blood, this is not something we choose and we just so happen to be in these units without little choice. You have to understand that this doesn’t mean we hate them but this also doesn’t mean that we automatically love our family members because they happen to be related to us, instead they have to earn it, he doesn’t automatically have to feel safe with people simply because I’ve told him but he should know that bad behaviour manifests in different forms and settings, something that many people learn when their much older and live in the shackles of their toxic family members. By broadening our definition of bad behaviour, we empower our children to identify and respond to it more effectively.

The feeling that a child can’t tell you about a close person hurting them is because they are usually taught that respecting grownups or relatives is also tolerating bad behaviour. However, on the other hand, the best foundation for teaching kids to recognize bad behaviour is by creating a safe space where there’s open and honest communication. This means that you must constantly remind your child that it doesn’t matter who it is but as long as they feel uncomfortable, disrespected or hurt in any way they must feel comfortable discussing their concerns, questions and feelings. It would beat the purpose if you constantly brushed everything under the carpet and started bashing your child for their feelings, instead take time to help them set boundaries by letting them know that they don’t need to be friends with people who are mean to her/him this includes visiting or sleeping over at people’s houses that they are not comfortable being around.

While I also constantly point out bad behaviour and help my son understand the need to be safe, it is also my responsibility to ensure that he understands how his behaviour can also impact other people positively or negatively. Our conversations will mostly centre on how his actions will always have consequences and that the world doesn’t revolve around him and this means he needs empathy and respect. While I try my best to be a haven for a child, the hardest part for me as a parent is to also model an empathetic role model who knows how to establish healthy boundaries which includes friends, classmates and other family members.

As this is a lifelong exercise there will be a need to learn through real-life scenarios with age-appropriate stories and examples of various types of bad behaviour, both from strangers and people they know. Some books are dedicated to this topic which usually feature different scenarios with questions like “How would you feel if this happened to you?” or “What would you do in this situation?” the idea is to help children develop critical thinking skills and make better decisions even when you’re not with them, it’s to help them understand that they have the power to keep themselves safe just by using their voice.

Parents who are either co-parenting or are all under one roof need to read from the same script because children who witness inappropriate behaviour from different parents tend to be confused and are usually in distress. In this case, you will have to explain to your child that everyone makes mistakes, acknowledge them, and apologize on their behalf but if the child is a minor you will have to pull your child out of that situation if it’s affecting your child in a concerning way. Reminding your children that bad behaviour can also come from you as a parent means that they won’t put you on a pedestal but will understand that you don’t have some form of godly power within you and that you actively work hard to be a good role model, they have to remember that having good behaviour is not some form of magic but something that everyone actively has to work towards since it bears good fruit.
By encouraging open communication, empathy, and critical thinking in our children and educating them to recognise inappropriate behaviour, we allow them to grow into responsible, compassionate adults. Let’s teach our children how to recognise inappropriate behaviour and how to react to it no matter where it occurs or who is involved so that they can face the world with confidence. By doing this, we ensure that the generations who follow have a better and safer future