Are code words a good idea for children's safety?

Safety experts have differing opinions on whether code words for children are a good idea. Here's what they say.

By Ryan Stuart

Are code words a good idea for children's safety?
The Block Parent Program of Canada may be turning 45 this year, but that doesn't mean parents can let down their guard when it comes to teaching their kids to be safe on the street. In March 2013 a stranger tried to convince a 10-year-old Ajax, Ontario, girl to go with him somewhere, saying that her parents had asked him to pick her up. She asked for the code word that anyone picking her up unexpectedly should know and the man fled.

"Code or secret words are the number 1 safety rule," says Linda Patterson, president of the Block Parent Program of Canada. "They provide comfort for the child and comfort for the parent." (Worried about how to take care of your child this summer while still letting them have fun? Read up on our 4 summer safety tips to learn how to keep your kids safe both in the water and out on your family adventure.)

However, as a parent of a nine-year-old girl who wants to walk to school on her own, I can't help wondering if the old ways of street-proofing our kids – such as code words or the Block Parent Program – still make sense in our connected age. Like, what about a cellphone?

"Cellphone batteries die. They get lost. They don't work," says Patterson, listing off the potential problems. "Not many five-year-olds have cellphones. Many 14-year-olds don't have them. And if you think the GPS embedded in them is going to help, abductors know about this, too. It's the first thing they are going to disable."

So, back to code words. Stu Auty, president and founder of The Canadian Safe School Network, worries that code words are not the best option since they open up dialogue between the child and the stranger, and who knows where that might lead.

"They could say, 'Do you know the password?' and all of a sudden you've got a conversation," he says. "Then you've got an adult convincing a child because they're in the conversation."

Patterson retorts that she's never heard of that happening. "I do hear about incidents where a code word is used every month," she says. "They work." (Do code words really work in every situation? Look over our Is a code word a good idea blog post and find out.)

According to Patterson, parents and children should choose a code word that is simple and easy for kids to remember. Old standbys, like their dog or sibling's name, are perfect.

But don't stop there, she urges. "Some kids are outgoing. With a secret word or not, if a child is open to talking with an adult they are going to," she says.

Beyond asking "secret" questions, kids should be taught what to do when a stranger approaches them. This is often covered at school in programs like "Stranger Danger," but parents should also cover the "what if?" situations at home, so that kids are prepared to deal with them. Parents can help by never writing their child's name where it is visible; a stranger who knows a kid's name will have a better chance of convincing him or her to go with them.

However these conversations happen, they must be done carefully. "We don't want to make our kids paranoid," says Patterson. "We don't want to scare them. We want to protect them. It's a very fine line." (Learn how to keep your child safe both outdoors and indoors with our piece on Safety tips for kids in the kitchen.)

Beyond never going anywhere with a stranger, the key message should be to trust your gut.

"The best advice is simple,” says Patterson. “If you feel funny inside, there's probably something wrong. Walk away and find someone you know."

In the past, the advice may have been to find a home with a Block Parent emblem in the window, but these days that could be a long search. In big cities across the country – and in British Columbia in particular – the number of registered Block Parent homes has sharply declined. The biggest reason is increased due diligence. To qualify for the program, in-person criminal record checks must be done for everyone in the home over the age of 12, and finger-printing must be done if someone's date of birth and sex matches those of a registered sex offender. Patterson says the program is renewing its efforts to recruit homes and even small businesses, which tend to be more reliable during the day when most adults are at work.

If there isn't a Block Parent presence in your neighbourhood, an informal one can be set up with friends and neighbours who you trust, says Patterson. Another easy and effective safeguard is to set up walking groups so that kids are never alone while walking to school.

"Keeping kids safe is not that hard," Patterson says. "It's just about communication."

Keeping your kid safe outside of your home is vital, but talking to them about the dangers of the internet is equally important. Learn from our article about Keeping your child safe on the web.

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