'Street-smart' children can learn to be alert, not fearful

As the mother of two sons growing up in New York City, Grace Hechinger knew it was important to teach her children to be alert and wise about their environment. She and other mothers wanted to help prepare their children for challenging situations that might arise.

''We talked about (safety issues) such as when to let our children walk to school alone, what to tell them to do if someone came up and asked for their bus pass, what they should do if they were mugged,'' she recalls. As her children entered their teens, they had family discussions about the best way to handle certain situations.

Drawing from her own experience and from interviews with parents, children, and police officers, Mrs. Hechinger addresses safety topics important to families in her new book, ''How to Raise a Street-Smart Child: The Complete Parent's Guide to Safety on the Street and at Home'' (Facts on File Publications , New York, 14.95). Mrs. Hechinger is an educator, author, and journalist who writes on family life and women's issues.

The practical advice offered in the book is geared toward helping children feel self-assured and competent rather than arousing unnecessary fears about possible dangers. Being alert and careful, Mrs. Hechinger emphasizes, does not mean young people need to be nervous, anxious, or overcautious.

''Parents have to think of discussing safety issues as a process, not as a one-time thing,'' she says. Introducing various topics at different times is less overwhelming for children and less apt to make them fearful. She also believes it is important for parents not to appear fearful themselves.

''To make your task easier,'' she writes, ''accent what children can do to protect themselves, not what scares them. Stress the positive aspects of safety and make children feel competent as early as possible. Essentially, parents should treat the threat of street dangers as something to be mastered.''

One tool to help teach wise behavior to young children (aged 4 to 8) is to present various situations in a game format, using ''what if'' questions. These games encourage children to come up with their own solutions. Their answers help parents learn what their child already knows and what still needs to be learned.

Examples of ''what if'' questions can include: ''What if we were separated in a department store, in the movies, or at the beach?'' ''What if a stranger offered you candy or presents to leave the playground?'' ''What if you were in the street and someone asked you to come to his house to show you some new kittens?'' ''What if your friends wanted to play with matches?'' ''What if someone you did not know asked your name and phone number?''

Young children, Mrs. Hechinger notes, often have difficulty making distinctions between friends and ''strangers.'' Parents must be sure children understand who are relatives and close friends and who are not.

She also believes it is important to teach children that their own views are important and to encourage them to trust their feelings about a situation. Children can sense when something is wrong, but acting on their instincts can be difficult, since they are generally taught to please and obey adults.

''When children know they can say no to adults in certain situations, they usually will,'' she says. Safety at home

Family policy in the home can include making rules about opening the front door for visitors and answering the phone, plus outlining steps to take in emergencies such as a fire or a burglary.

Children can be taught at preschool ages not to open the door for strangers, even for those who say they are expected. Mrs. Hechinger also suggests teaching youngsters not to give information over the phone to a caller they do not know. If a child is home alone and answers the phone, he should not reveal that an adult is not there. A response such as ''My mother can't come to the phone right now'' is one option. As obvious as it seems, children should also be told they can hang up on a persistent or obnoxious caller.

If a child comes home from school to find things in disarray and suspects a burglary, he or she should not go into the house and risk meeting the intruder. Instead, children can be advised to go back to school and find a teacher or go to a neighbor's house and call the police. Safety on the street

As children get older and pursue more independent activities, according to Mrs. Hechinger, they need to develop an increased awareness of their environment. If they see a group of young people down the block, for example, they should learn to assess the situation and decide whether to cross to the other side of the street or to continue on.

Children, particularly in urban areas, may be confronted with adult muggers or with young people older and bigger than they are.

''There is more than one way to handle this situation. The options are not just to fight or give in,'' Mrs. Hechinger says. Children have defeated mugging attempts by starting conversations with the assailant, by pretending to faint or become nauseated, or by looking for a chance to escape and then running away. Police warn against trying to fight a mugger, since the attempt usually backfires. Instead, young people should be encouraged to think quickly but calmly and take what seems to be the best possible course under the circumstances.

Children growing up in the suburbs may not face the same situations as urban children, but a basic street-safety awareness can be a protection in new situations.

''Suburban kids know they don't have to be on guard all the time,'' Mrs. Hechinger says. ''When they go someplace new, such as a new shopping mall or off to college, they are less likely to be careful.''

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