Would Teaching Your Child A "Code Word" Help Prevent Their Kidnapping?

Child protection activists, psychologists and parents have differing opinions on the precautionary tactic.

Parents and children sharing a private "code word" is a safety and prevention technique used for generations to avert potential kidnappings.

It worked for Brenda James, an Arizona mother whose 10-year-old daughter was approached by an unknown male on Wednesday and told "her brothers had been in a serious accident and she needed to come with him."

The young girl managed to escape a likely abduction when she asked the man for the "code word" and he sped off in his white van.

"We came up with a code word and this one time, it saved my daughter's life," James told Fox 10 Phoenix.

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"They know who can pick them up and who can't, but there's always that special situation where there might be somebody they don't know or don't know well, so that's why we came up with a code word."

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb also praised the move, and the parents for having a code word and talking to their children about stranger danger.

"We hope by putting this out, it will encourage parents to have that conversation and create a plan with their children," Sheriff Lamb said.

While the sheriff's office might be supportive of the code word approach, a number of local child protection activists and psychologists share a different view.

"Kids need to understand if they feel unsafe or unsure to run. Keep it simple and just run," Hetty Johnston, founder of Australia’s leading child protection organisation Bravehearts, told 10 daily.

"Keep it in line with what the behavioural patterns in a situation like that would be. If you're being bullied in the schoolyard, having a code word won't help you, but running and telling the teacher will."

Johnston acknowledged while sometimes children can and will "freeze" in distressing situations, having them practice is key.

"[Code words] aren't the best strategy to use for child safety," agreed Dr. Fiona Martin from Sydney Child Psychology Centre.

"If we start focusing on code words, we're spotlighting that rather than teaching protective behaviours."

"Kids need to understand if they feel unsafe or unsure to run." Image: Getty.

Parents have mixed feelings about teaching their sons and daughters a code word for them to remember in panicked situations.

"It's a good idea, but you've got to have the kind of kid that will understand the importance of it and keep it a secret," Sydney-based mother Elizabeth Talbot offered.

"Kids are trusting and often naive and might divulge it to a friend or teacher, and then there's a risk it could be misused."

Florida resident Courtney Dillard, a mother of three, said her children took their code word "extremely serious".

"My friend, married to my husband’s cousin at the time, went to my kids school to pick them up," Dillard told 10 daily.

"She babysat my kids on a regular basis before they started school while I worked -- my kids even call her aunt.

"I received a phone call from her asking for our code word, because the kids refused to go with her unless she knew it. It didn’t even dawn on me they would require her to know it, so I didn’t give it to her. They were four, five and seven at the time," she explained.

Bravehearts CEO Johnston said parents and teachers should download the organisation's DITTO Education Pack for children aged 3-8, which teaches them personal safety rules "without frightening the life out of them".

She also noted that child kidnappings are not as common in Australia as they are in the US and when they do happen, it’s a family member far more often than a stranger.

"It's very rare [in Australia]. In some ways, parents' anxiety about their children's safety is harming kids themselves," she said.

"It's how you talk about the code word also. You might end up instilling fear into your child, make them fearful of people. It's probably not a good plan."

Dr. Martin suggested parents spend more time educating their children about potential dangers with strangers "without making them distressed" about it.

"Kids have a varied understanding of what's safe and what's not at different stages. Explain what a stranger is, differentiate between close friends and acquaintances. Discuss the types of relationships in your lives," she said.

Featured image: Getty.

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au.