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Jessica Ridgeway’s disappearance and what every parent needs to know about teaching kids to be safe

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“Mom, when can I just be by myself?”

My 8-year-old daughter asked me this question last summer as we sat by a stream near our house. I knew what she meant. She’s independent like me and would love nothing better than to leave the house and explore her environs on her own terms. And I want that for her, too. My childhood was brimming with solo adventures that are the foundation of how I still live my life. I’d like nothing better than to set her loose.

But then I think of Jessica Ridgeway, the 10-year-old Westminster girl who went missing while walking to a park three blocks from home on her way to school.

As a mom, I’ve struggled with a balance of being a free-range parent versus a helicopter one. In my heart, I’m the former and believe happiness and self-confidence are borne out of self-sufficiency. In reality, I am often the latter. I don’t let my 6- and 8-year-olds play in the front yard of our sometimes-busy street unsupervised. I walk them to and from the bus stop while parents of similar-aged kids let them go it alone.

My husband sometimes harps on me to loosen the reigns and I wish I could but then I remember all those Dateline specials about kids who get kidnapped walking to school. And I usually err on the side of caution.

My kids and I are openly discussing Jessica Ridgeway’s disappearance and my hope is they will be extra cautious yet not live in fear. National Safety Director Nancy McBride has these tips on teaching kids personal safety:

*Speak to your child in a calm and reassuring way. Fear is not an effective teaching tool; confidence is.

*Speak openly about safety issues. If you approach child safety openly, your children will be more likely to come to you with problems or concerns.

*Don’t confuse children by warning against “strangers.” Danger to children is much greater from someone you or they know than from a “stranger.”

*Teach children that no one has the right to force, trick, or pressure them into doing things they don’t want to do.

*Practice safety skills by creating “what if” scenarios. An outing to a mall or the park can serve as a chance for children to practice safety skills, such as checking with you before they go anywhere or do anything, and locating adults who can help if they need assistance.

*Supervise your children. It is vital to their protection and safety. Children should not be put in the position of making safety choices if they are not old enough or skilled enough to make those choices.

*Check out adults who have access to your children. The more involved you are in your child’s life, the less likely it is that your child will seek attention from other, potentially dangerous adults.

Are you more of a free-range or helicopter parent? Have you discussed Jessica Ridgeway’s kidnapping with your kids?

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  • comment avatar Karen October 8, 2012

    My heart goes out to this family–every parent’s worst nightmare, for sure.

    We live in a really safe area (read: farming community) so I’m not too worried about my kids being by themselves) but whenever we come into city I have an iron clad grip. Can’t be too careful.

  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck October 8, 2012


    I’m with you. Whenever I’m with my kids in a non-urban area, I loosen my grip a lot.

  • comment avatar Monica October 8, 2012

    I don’t really feeel like I’m a helicopter in their life at home, school and give them a lot of liberties. But when it comes to going out, I definitely know where they are, with whom and what time they’ll be home. My kids are a bit older but it’s still important to be involved.

  • comment avatar Melissa October 8, 2012

    If there’s a word for in-between the extremes, that would be me. My kids are usually within eyesight of me. When we’re camping, we let them loose, so long as they have eyes on the campsite. The missing child has brought us to discuss what if scenarios- since our kids are pretty outgoing and friendly. My heart is aching for Jessica’s family & friends. Praying for her safe return.

  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck October 8, 2012

    In-between is a good world to live in, me thinks!

  • comment avatar Bridgett October 8, 2012

    My kids are still to young to be allowed to go on their own. But I know when they are they are going to have a cell phone and all of their family and friend numbers programmed in it. I have been going over stranger danger rules a lot more lately especially since the beginning of school started and even more because I live in Arvada and here were two attempted child abductions right after school started.

  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck October 8, 2012

    We actually go to that YMCA with the attempted abductions. Definitely extra careful there whereas it might have been a place I’d be a bit more relaxed.

  • comment avatar Elizabeth October 8, 2012

    After this unfortunate incident, I will likely err more on the side of caution when my kids start going to school full time. My heart goes out to the Ridgeway family. It angers me that our children aren’t safe within our neighborhoods. I hope they find her safe.

  • comment avatar Lorain October 8, 2012

    Such an important question. Childhood is a critical period for our kids to develop autonomy and make difficult choices while their parents are close enough to offer guidance before things go terribly awry. However, even a parent’s superpowers can’t mend all of the dangers in our world. Our thoughts are with Jessica and her family during this tragic time.

  • comment avatar Kara Williams October 10, 2012

    Just read of the 11-year-old girl in Cody, WY, who was lured into a car by a man who wanted “help to find my dog.” She was sexually assaulted and released.

    I allow my kids to walk through our small town alone (they are 10 and 12), but I encourage the buddy system. I think of my pretty 7th grader who most often walks w/ a friend to the library or her friend’s in-town house after school.

    That said, the 11 year old girl who was abducted in WY WAS walking with a friend. So much for power in numbers…

    Yes, we talk with our kids about different scenarios of potential abduction, and will be having “reminder” talks with the kids this afternoon.

  • comment avatar Lisa - Laughing Yoga Mama October 11, 2012

    I also vary my responses depending on the situation, but my boys don’t have anywhere near the freedom to explore that I had growing up in a small town. (Although I think some of the lack of supervision we had was crazy!) We have just started letting our boys (10 & 12) walk down to the high school football field a few blocks away for short periods on the weekends.

    We had a long discussion last night about Jessica’s disappearance and exploring our boys’ thoughts about how they would react if someone approached them. While we had talked about this issue a lot when they were younger, it had been a while and they definitely needed the refresher. We discussed a variety of scenarios and strategies and while they were initially scared by the conversation, they finished feeling more confident and prepared.

    It’s always a balance deciding when to hold on and when to let go. I think trusting our instincts and preparing our kids is the best we can do. Crazy things can happen anywhere, but we can’t live in fear.

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