Friday, December 18, 2009

Safety Special: Holiday Shopping

As the holiday season comes into full swing the stores can go from almost barren to overcrowded in a matter of hours.  With all these people about it's easy to lose track of things: that gift for Uncle Bob, where the car is parked, where little Timmy and Jane wandered off to.  It's this last one that, while equally typical as the others, can turn into a potential nightmare for a family.  See, it's not just other shoppers engaged in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season but also child predators and crowded, busy, malls and department stores make their "shopping" so much easier.

Child predators, like any predator, count on distractions, the presumption of safety, and a child's general tendency to wander and trust adults to separate them first from their parents and then from everyone else.  Once it's just the child and the predator it can be the start of a nightmare from which the child and his or her family may never awake.  But there are several safety precautions that a parent who's shopping with their children can and should take (especially during the holiday season):

Watch Your Kids

Pretty obvious, I'm sure, but if you go to a mall you'd be amazed how many parents turn their backs on their kids or go to get something leaving the child two aisles behind.  But this statement goes beyond the includes bathrooms and changing rooms.  Approximately a month ago in a JC Penny in Massachusetts town a boy was raped inside a changing room when his mother left him to make a phone call.  Now this is an extreme case but it makes brutally clear what can happen when a child is left unattended and there's a predator about.  So, what to do?

First, never assume...never assume a child's going to stay somewhere while you go pay or look for something and never assume the child's automatically going to follow you as you continue shopping.  To keep from having to constantly look around to ensure the little tike's there try holding their hand or keeping them in a stroller/cart/leash-thing/what have you.  Also, always accompany your child to the restroom; many malls now have restrooms and changing areas made especially for families so parents don't have to drag their kids into restrooms of the opposite genders and such.  Depending on their age it's possible to let the child go to the bathroom or change without either being directly in the stall with them...that doesn't mean you shouldn't stay close by though.  While that their most vulnerable being within earshot and ignoring potential distractions (phone, other conversations, etc) is important for your child's safety and security.

Now older kids, and those mature enough to be trusted, may be allowed more freedom in going to other stores in the mall without supervision in which case make sure they check with you before they go and that they do not go to locations other than where they stated...this is where technology is beneficial, have them text you when they get to the store they're going to and again when they leave it, sharing their next plans with you.  (Obviously if you try this and the child doesn't follow the rules then it should be back to sticking with the 'rents until they can be trusted.)  However that doesn't mean you should give them completely free reign...have them go with some friends or siblings of about the same age and check in with you in person every so often.  Plans for meeting each other should always be clearly conveyed and adhered to by everyone.

Separation Anti-Anxiety

Despite best efforts, it can become separated from parents in the hustle and bustle of shopping.  Because of this it's of the utmost importance that a child know what to do if it happens before it happens.  First thing to tell them is that, if they discover they are lost, they shouldn't wander off in search of you...inevitably this only makes finding one another harder.  They should also be taught to never leave the mall in search of you or the family car.  Now should they get lost out in the open (i.e. not at a specific store) they should go to the mall's help/customer service desk or, because 'tis the season, perhaps the line for Santa which the child is likely to find easily and to have plenty of other mothers with their children to watch over him or her until you're reunited; that choice is up to you and your child, just make sure it's clear before you enter the mall.  You should teach children to look for specific people who can help return him to her to you such as law-enforcement officers, security officers, store personnel, or another mother with children.  ...Also helpful is for your child to take note of what you're wearing, your name (not just Mommy or Daddy), and being able to describe you should they find an acceptable person to assist them in finding you once more.

A special note for those who ride trains (such those of the Massachusetts MBTA):  As my own mother would make clear to me...if your child gets stuck on the train as you get off they should get off at the next stop and wait until you arrive.  If your child gets off at the wrong stop they should stay right there until you're able to relocate them.  The last thing either parent or child wants is for the child to ride a confusing train system within a busy, crowded, city, on their own.  ...These days there are also occasionally MBTA security who your child might be able to locate and request to stay with them until reunited with you but those people are few and far between.

Practice Makes Perfect

Visit the mall with your kids for the sole purpose of getting them used to the layout of the mall you'll be shopping at and having them practice what they should do while in the mall.  This is when you can ensure they can use a public telephone, locate then help/customer service desk along with other help within the mall and the stores and, for older children, go to the restroom with a friend and/or obey your "text when you're there, text when you go" rule suggested earlier.  ...Do this on a day when you aren't aiming to shop and can keep a continuous eye on your kids in case they aren't sure of everything yet.  With enough practice the things you've taught them should come as second nature so, if and when the time comes, they won't have to panic or worry...they'll already be confident in what to do.

Anonymity Is Key

Yes, they can be cute and help you tell the kids apart at a distance but never dress your children in clothing with their names on them.  That type of clothing allows a predatory person an easy way to convince you child they are not “strangers” and therefore should be trusted which could lead to disaster. No stranger should have an invitation to talk to your child and a name on a jacket or little purse gives them just that.  And, on a further note, those little car decals with the stick figure families all named in row...equally bad if not worse.  Now a potential predator has the name of your children and you and all they really have to do is say "Hey, are you Timmy?  Are your parents Sally and John?  Yes, well, they've been hurt and told me to come get you." and it's more than likely your child will follow the predator off god knows where.

Kid Friendly ≠ Kid Safe

Malls may have any number of kid-friendly places arcades, movie theaters, toy stores, and even playgrounds.  At first glance they seem a wonderful place to stick some whining kids while you run off to buy some presents for the season nearby.  But, at a closer look, these places are clear magnets for child predators and aren't anywhere a parent or guardian should leave a child alone.  These places have little to no supervision and the staff in these areas are generally not much older than your children.  Frankly, most are teens more interested in just socializing with friends that stop by and picking up their checks to pay their new phone or car.  They don’t really care about your kids, aren't watching for any suspicious behavior, and if even a minor problem comes up (a fight over a game, for example) they can quickly and easily become overwhelmed.  ...Any child in these kid-friendly areas are rather easy targets for a predator and, in the end, there is no substitute for parental supervision.

Have a Safe Season's Greetings!

In the end, if you can’t adequately supervise your children without being distracted, stay at home or leave them with someone else while you do your shopping.

An excellent source for all manner of information regarding child safety, preventing abduction, and identifying potentially dangerous circumstances is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ( Give them a visit and your children will be safer for it.

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