How to Intervene:
The Safety of Kids is Everybody's Business
by Irene van der Zande,
Personal safety for children depends largely on adults doing
what they can to help.
I often ride my bike through a large park. The path to the
beach is sometimes peacefully empty, sometimes crowded with
families, and sometimes isolated with only a drunk man or two
stumbling out of the bushes. The latter gentlemen I always wave to
cheerfully, but their behavior occasionally makes me glad I know
One day, I saw a very little girl, barely walking and clutching
her doll, wandering apparently alone. I looked around but could
see no one at that moment except for two women on a trail to the
side far in the distance.
I stopped and the little girl came trustingly towards me and
said, "Hi! I'm Annie!"
"Where's your Mommy, Annie?" I asked.
She pointed towards the two women, who waved at her. Absorbed
in their conversation, the two women then turned their backs and
started to walk quickly down the trail, leaving Annie alone except
Personal safety for children can be compromised by many
factors; there are so many different kinds of hazards in the world
for an unsupervised toddler that I couldn't bear to leave her.
"Annie, show me how quick you can run to your Mommy," I
said. Doll tucked under her arm, she started running towards the
women, but her baby legs couldn't possibly catch up.
|I called out to the women and they stopped just
around the bend of the trail, almost out of sight.
"You keep doing a good job of running and we'll wait for
you, Annie," I told the little girl.
Then I rode my bike up to the women, glancing back to make sure
Annie was still on her way to us.
The two women stood there silently looking at me uncertainly.
|With all the warmth and kindness that I
could muster, I started talking. "Thank you for stopping. I
don't mean to be rude, but there are news stories about all sorts
of awful things that happen to kids and I don't want them to
happen to Annie. I feel scared when you let her get so far from
you. This is a beautiful place and I think you feel safe here
because we are in nature. But I have had some scary incidents with
men myself here. Anyway, young children need you right next to
them all the time everywhere. Personal safety for children depends
on adults. You can't believe how quickly they can get hurt by
doing things that would never occur to us."
The women thanked me, and we kept talking until Annie caught up
This situation was clear, but sometimes it's tough to know when to
step in and when to mind our own business. It's hard to know what
to say. When we see situations that might be dangerous or abusive
for children, we often hesitate to speak up. We worry about
whether we have the right to interfere. After all, these are not
our children. We also worry about making the situation worse for
I have come to believe that personal safety for children is
always everybody's business. Child abuse and neglect thrive when
people mind their own business instead of taking action when they
To intervene successfully and safely in order to promote
personal safety for children, we first need to notice what is
happening, and try to have compassion for the adult as well as for
the child. People do get overwhelmed. People often lack child
management skills. People are often damaged by things that
happened to them and have poor boundaries. Most of us are not born
knowing how to take care of ourselves or each other.
The most effective approach is usually to acknowledge the
feelings of the adult in a respectful way and then state our
concerns in a positive way. If we become attacking, we will most
likely make the problem bigger, not better.
With permission, we might offer to carry something for an
exhausted adult, or entertain the child for a few minutes to give
the adult a break. I usually carry stickers and crayons in my bag
just to have something easy to give a child to do.
||If a parent is screaming at a child, we might say
something like, "It looks like you are having a hard time. It
is hot and crowded here, isn't it. I am wondering if there is
anything I can do to help." My experience is that people are
often hungry for kindness and embarrassed, but appreciative.
People might get annoyed, but realizing that their behavior is
noticed by others usually makes them more likely to control
On a couple of occasions, I have literally stopped people from
slapping their young children. In one situation, a little boy had
wandered out of an open front door and I was bringing him back to
his mother. In the other, a little girl had slipped through the
railing around a cliff while her babysitter was sitting on a
bench, and I had called out to the woman to grab the child before
|Both times, the adults had their hands raised to
hit but I stepped in very close and distracted them by saying very
sympathetically and firmly, "Hi. I can see that you feel
upset because that was scary, but your little one is too young to
understand. I believe that kids learn the wrong things when you
hit them." Both times, the women didn't hit, looked
surprised, and we talked some more.
Once I waited by a car in the middle of a huge parking lot
where two young children were playing in the back seat with no
adult in sight. When their father got back, I said, "Hi, I
know you are busy, but I am sure that you must really care about
your children. I felt afraid when I saw them left alone like
this." He looked startled, but then thanked me.
Of course, if we suspect that serious child abuse is occurring,
it is each of our responsibility to report our concerns to the
appropriate authority in our area.
Personal safety for children is everyone's business. Kidpower's
underlying principle is that the safety and self esteem of a child
are more important than anyone's embarrassment, inconvenience, or
offense. By setting aside our own discomfort about speaking up and
by risking the displeasure of someone else when we do it, we are
sending a powerful message to young people that their well-being
is our top priority.
|Copyright © 2009 Irene van der Zande of
Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International. Kidpower is an educational
charitable organization that, since 1989, has brought "People
Safety" education to over 1.2 million children, teenagers, and adults,
including those with special needs, from many different cultures - close to
home and around the world. For publications; free articles, podcasts and
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