When it comes to preparedness, we often focus on one main concept: protection. This is especially the case for parents because it’s a basic human need to want to keep little ones safe. Every mom and dad’s hope is to watch their children grow up to experience fulfilling lives, and the desire to protect them from danger in any form sets in the minute you realize you are responsible for a life beyond your own.
The truth is that parents can’t protect their kids from everything, even though they wish they could. Life throws curve balls, which sometimes appear at the most unexpected times. So when it comes to keeping kids safe from threats—from kidnappers to robbers to an impending natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado—there’s another important concept to consider, and that’s empowerment. By teaching kids how to be self-sufficient starting at a young age, you’re not only preparing them to handle a disaster, but teaching them useful life skills.
So which skills are the most important to teach? And how do you know where to begin? The good news is that building empowerment in kids doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be incorporated naturally into daily tasks. By taking some simple steps, you can help kids learn to protect themselves and prepare for the winding road of life. We talked with two experts—Robert Richardson, founder of the website Off the Grid Survival and author of The Ultimate Situational Survival Guide: Self-Reliance Strategies for a Dangerous World; and Jenifer Joy Madden, author of The Durable Human Manifesto. As parents, they offered tips from both a mom’s and dad’s perspective on how to nurture empowerment in kids. The most encouraging thing of all? “These are skills that will stay with your kids throughout their lives and set them up for success in all parts of life,” says Richardson.
INVOLVE KIDS IN PREPARATIONS
If you’re a family that’s accustomed to preparing for disaster, or even if you’re just getting started, it’s important to bring your kids into the conversation.
“Tell them why the family is preparing, what they’re preparing for, and involve them in the process,” says Richardson. “Make them feel like they’re part of it.” He says to keep in mind the age and maturity level of the kids, so as not to scare them with information beyond what they can comprehend. As soon as they’re old enough to understand, Richardson suggests telling them about the disasters that are most likely to occur, some of which depend on where you live. For example, families on the East Coast must be aware of hurricanes, while families in the Midwest have to be aware of tornadoes.
But other potential disasters aren’t location- dependent. No matter where you live, he recommends teaching kids from an early age about “stranger danger” and crime. In many schools, these programs are no longer taught, so more than ever it’s up to parents to initiate the conversation and help kids understand why they need to be aware.
FOSTER SITUATIONAL AWARENESS
When it comes to being aware of one’s environment, Madden says one of the best things parents can do is send their kids outdoors to connect with the natural world. “We are human animals, and one of our best assets is our physical coordination,” she says. “Kids need to know how to defend themselves, and one way to learn this is by running around outside, which builds agility, coordination, and mindfulness of one’s surroundings.” She emphasizes the importance of kids developing a sense of personal navigation early in life, which for a young child might simply mean navigating the different rooms and areas of the home.
As the child grows, this can expand to the neighborhood, surrounding area, and perhaps the child’s path to school. “This teaches them confidence and autonomy,” she says. Richardson adds that situational awareness can easily be taught in a fun and age-appropriate way by playing games. “When you’re driving to the store, play the alphabet game using objects and landmarks,” he suggests. “And at the store, point out police officers and others adults they can trust if they need help, and have kids look for exit signs and escape routes.” As children get older, you can begin giving them more information, telling them what type of emergencies to consider in that environment and talking about strategies for dealing with specific situations.
DEVELOP A COMMUNICATION PLAN
If your child attends daycare or school outside the home, it’s important to have some way of getting ahold of them if the phone lines go down. Though he’s not a huge fan of giving kids cell phones, Richardson believes even young kids can benefit from having a basic mobile phone stored in their backpack. In fact, there are cell phones designed specifically for this purpose, having only a few buttons that can be programmed with emergency contacts like Mom, Dad, Grandma, and 911. This makes them userfriendly for even the youngest of kids. In addition, include a laminated list of emergency contacts inside the child’s backpack so they don’t have to depend on remembering a phone number in a stressful situation. This list can also be very useful to a trusted adult during an emergency.
“KIDS NEED TO KNOW HOW TO DEFEND THEMSELVES, AND ONE WAY TO LEARN THIS IS BY RUNNING AROUND OUTSIDE, WHICH BUILDS AGILITY, COORDINATION, AND MINDFULNESS OF ONE’S SURROUNDINGS.”
Madden adds that as kids get older in this digital age, you can begin to train them to use electronics responsibly. She suggests starting off by buying a cheap cell phone to use as an emergency phone, and letting the kids borrow it, which teaches them how to keep it safe (i.e. to not lose it or drop it in the toilet) and helps them learn how to use the device to communicate with parents. “Eventually they’ll be able to handle an iPhone or a smartphone,” says Madden, but she emphasizes that no matter which phone you choose, it’s essential for parents to institute parental controls and limit both the amount of time spent with the device, and what kind of content the child can access. Over time, you can loosen things up as you see appropriate. “Just like you wouldn’t drop your eight-year-old off at the mall alone, you can’t let your child enter cyberspace willy-nilly,” she says. Ultimately, cell phones can be a life-saving piece of gear in a family’s communication plan.
CREATE A PINT-SIZED BUGOUT BAG
It’s never too early to put together a bugout bag for your little one, and according to Richardson, the most important factor is that it be age-appropriate. “For young children, this means comfort items,” he says. Pack up a lightweight collection of favorite games, a teddy bear, sweets, trail mix, a Nerf football, and anything else that might keep the child’s mind off the crisis around them, so that their parents can focus on what needs to be done. As children grow older the bugout bag can grow with them, eventually incorporating items that expand beyond comfort to survival, like a pocket knife, flashlight, poncho, pre-paid cell phone, emergency whistle, ipod, first aid kit, hand sanitizer, and protective equipment like goggles and masks.
TEACH BASIC LIFE SKILLS
Richardson believes strongly in the value of programs like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and other classes that teach wilderness survival skills. He also emphasizes that the skills must translate to an urban lifestyle since this is how the majority of everyday people live. He says it doesn’t hurt to teach kids how to hunt and fish, and how to garden and cook, in an age-appropriate manner. Madden adds that parents can start this process in very simple ways, like teaching personal responsibility by encouraging kids to pick up their personal space, and then expanding responsibilities to include picking up around the house and helping with chores in and around the home.
This helps life skills develop naturally. For example, if you’re fixing something, ask your child to hold the nails and watch how you hammer. In addition, they can help cook by mashing up bananas for banana bread, stirring up pancake batter, or adding vegetables you’ve chopped up to a salad. If you’re using the sewing machine—patching a hole in the knee of someone’s jeans or hemming a pair of pants—have your kids watch how you do it. “Every time you’re doing some type of skill, you can give them an opportunity to help,” says Madden. And over time this builds into a wide range of life skills.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.