How to Raise a Street Smart Child

After years of living in (what I perceived to be) a bucolic suburb, I was thrown into an entirely different universe my freshman year of high school. Suddenly, my days of leaving the house without a worry in mind were gone. I’ll admit, it was a shock. Back then, I had no control over my parents’ choice to move. Even worse, I was socially unprepared for the challenges of urban living. I had zero street smarts. I was a naïve target in the least.

Sound extreme? Perhaps it is. But for kids, change is inevitable. Still, ignoring the dangers of the greater world while in our suburban bubble did not help. Okay, I don’t mean to raise alarms, but let’s be honest. Danger is all around us. For children, the world can be a scary place. But it doesn’t have to be. Whether you live in the country or the big city, eventually your child will have to learn a sense of street smarts. In time, they’ll travel beyond their sheltered existences on class trips or family vacations.

The world is big, but small in comparison to the mobile lifestyles we enjoy. Whether it be via a family road trip or jaunts on social media, the world awaits! And it’s all good. The trick is to instill a sense of confidence in your children. By doing so, you’ll enhance their safety your own peace of mind as a parent.

Let Them Trust Their Instincts

We all have that sort of sixth sense. You know it, the feeling that someone is watching you, or maybe that tingling down your spine. When something feels wrong or out of place, it probably is.

Teach this to your kids, but do your best to prevent them from becoming apprehensive. When we’re on the road, we always play “I Spy.” It’s a great way to pass the time. More importantly, it teaches kids to be observant of their surroundings. When they see the world around them, they come to understand it better. What’s likely to happen is that they will notice little things that are out of the ordinary. My toddler asked me one day about the new car across the street. Check one off for looking out. Turns out, it was a neighbor’s rental car. But as a parent, I felt proud knowing he was alert to his surroundings.

When you’re in a new place, it may not be as simple. But some things will stand out. Routines fill the daily acts of living no matter where you are. Chances are, your little one will notice the people and objects that don’t fit those routines. It’s a type of awareness that links to their natural curiosity, and is a first line of defense in sensing danger.

The Wandering Spirit

Kids love adventure. That imagination that wows you is very special. But it can also cause trouble! I wandered into a nearby woodlot as a child. The beauty of the place overwhelmed me, but I was unprepared for a day in the woods. Night came fast. Fortunately, my parents and our neighbors found me wandering. I was scared. And shocked. I was only a stone’s throw from our road. But to my small body and mind, it seemed like a vast distance.

For your child, those jaunts into their worlds could be fun. Keep it that way. Allow them to explore with supervision. We often take walks in a nearby forest, and I allow our little ones to stray from the trail―after I’ve checked it for safety.

Remind your kids that, sometimes, straying from the beaten path is not an option. Teach them to walk home from school along routes that are well-traveled. Then find the fastest routes between home, school, and friends’ houses. Avoid deserted after hours places like parks and the woodlots that dot our suburban landscapes.

Finally, never let them leave somewhere alone. Make sure your schools and family friends have a list of trusted adults that your child may leave with. Most schools are steadfast in this safeguard. But how about other parents? Do they know your kids’ grandparents? Share pictures via text so they know that your child is leaving with the right person. Small steps often prevent tragedies.

If your child is older, have them travel with a friend. My own experiences in the city as a teenager were tense at first. But after making a few friends, getting around was easier. And it was fun. I learned to explore my new world and see all the possibilities it created.

Beware of Strangers

It’s hard for a child to know who they should and should not talk to. As a rule, I always show them pictures of the uniforms worn by our local police and firefighters. Yes, they are strangers, but their job is to keep us safe. Accordingly, if you live near a police or fire station, stop in to say hello. Many of them offer open houses just for kids. It’s a great resource to get to know these guardians, and they always have safety programs available just for kids.

Strangers are everywhere. After all, we’re not living in our own sheltered environments. We shop, eat out, and play at our parks. All of these places are full of strangers.

If you frequent a certain supermarket, get to know the staff. If they see your child alone or with a stranger, they may be able to help. As a parent, we owe it to our children to understand our surroundings and the people that inhabit them. Unfortunately, retail destinations often are the scenes for abduction. They are bustling with activity and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Keep your child close by. Keep that wanderer close to you, no matter the distraction. Shopping with kids is never easy. And the temptations to wander off are everywhere.

So, stop in the toy aisle. Feed that desire to see the latest and greatest toys. We do it too. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to browse?

Don’t Get Too Personal

Okay, I am guilty of this too. I label EVERYTHING. Simply because things get lost at school, camp, or at friends’ houses. It also deters arguing over who owns the item in question. But avoid labels that are openly visible. Forget about the shirt with your child’s name on it. Cute? Maybe. But it’s also an invitation. That name is the perfect opening for a stranger to walk up to your child and start a conversation.

Do you know a better way to get a kid’s attention than their name? That recognition will grab any child’s attention.

We tell our kids to never talk to strangers. But is it enough? If a stranger approaches and addresses them by their name, the probability is high that they will respond. Instead, give them a code word. It’s a great practice. We use it in all situations: whether it’s grandma picking them up at school or a family friend coming to babysit, my kids know to ask for a code word before leaving with someone or letting them in the house. If a stranger calls their name, I’ve told my kids to yell “Code word, please!” before getting close to them.

Without hesitation, my kids will run to the safest place if the person doesn’t know it. Make the effort to show them places in the neighborhood where they can go: a police station, the firehouse, a favorite restaurant or store. Take care to choose a location that is publicly visible, and the staff are reliable.

How many of us have let a psychic give us a reading based on bland personal information? It’s the easiest game in the book, and even more confounding for children. Bottom line, don’t label anything with your child’s name.

Be Involved

I get it, we’re all very busy. But how many of us have taken the time to get to know each person in our kids’ lives? Think about it next time you sign up for a sport or other activity. What is the coach’s background? Does he or she have specialized training in instructing children? We entrust our kids to strangers all the time. Just because someone puts up a storefront or is part of an organization doesn’t give them a free pass from our parental scrutiny.

Go the extra step and investigate these activities. Look beyond cost and schedule and the reviews of the program. These things matter little. Instead, know the instructors and coaches. As a parent, you’re giving them access to your child on a level that’s equivalent to a teacher. Don’t ever take this responsibility lightly.

Coaches and other adults are in a leadership role. Accordingly, they’ll have your child’s respect based on that fact alone. But remember to remind your child that it’s okay to ask questions of them.

You Can Say No!

Kids are kids, and adults are adults. For that reason, many kids are afraid to say “no” to an adult. Empower them with that right. Always let them know that they have complete control over their bodies and minds. Instill in them the mantra, “My body, my rules.”

Remember, kids have great instincts. Watch them around strangers. They know when to back away. Likewise, if someone forces them to show affection, this is inappropriate. We’ve worked on instilling this instinct in our kids by asking their permission to hug or kiss them. Because it is a choice they allow themselves to make when their bodies are involved. Sure, I’ve been a little hurt when I wanted a hug and didn’t get one. Who wouldn’t be?

In comparison though, it’s also a fine way to learn about what they are feeling. Why didn’t they want a hug? Maybe they are feeling angry or sad. Or, perhaps, it could be that someone asked to touch them in a way that made them uncomfortable. When you ask, they know that you are respecting them. And by default, they may be more willing to discuss their emotions or situations that bothered them.

It’s not easy getting older family members to follow these rules. Grandma and grandpa will want their hugs and kisses. But let them know why you are doing it, and I’m sure they’ll be ready to follow along.


So, I know we’ve focused on some of our worst fears as parents. Abductors and sexual predators are always a concern. But let’s be practical, too. Raising a street smart child is far more than watching out for strangers or looking both ways before crossing the street.

Remember that bully from your childhood? Yeah, bullies still exist.  A bit of street smarts is all it takes to keep a bully at bay, because bullies are predators who prey on opportune targets. The same points for dealing with a stranger or being aware of your surroundings will help defeat a bully.

If a bully is a problem, remind your child to stay with their friends. Bullies, like strangers, hate a crowd. Instead of crossing paths, always make sure your child avoids places where the bully likes to hang out, like playgrounds or corner stores. It’s okay to cross the street and avoid confrontation. Just because your child knows the bully doesn’t make them any less of a danger. If it were a stranger threatening them, they would keep a safe distance.

Bullies threaten to get their way. Tell your child it’s quite all right to tell you or a teacher about what a bully is doing. They are not being a tattle-tale; instead, they are learning to resolve conflict with trusted authority figures.

Lead On

We can’t always shelter our children. Honestly, we shouldn’t shelter them from all of life’s challenges. With your leadership and understanding, they’ll be better prepared to meet life head-on as they get older. Then you’ll have a bit more peace of mind knowing that you’ve made the playing field the safest it can be for them.

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