SITUATIONAL AWARENESS takes work. I wouldn't be where I am today without the leadership and guidance of some pretty amazing mentors. The awareness techniques I've presented to my children are based on the things I've learned during my nineteen years as a federal air marshal.
I've taken those lessons and broken them down into manageable, age-appropriate pieces that when placed together as a whole look no different than what I've done throughout my career. As an adult, it's up to you to make sure your children are prepared for the dangers life may present them. Predatory violence, kidnapping, and human trafficking aren't subjects we tend to discuss freely with our children, but if we expect them to be confident, independent young people, we have to work together with them as opposed to sheltering them from these realities.
Children are capable of picking up on things that we're sometimes unaware of, so it's vital that we pay close attention to how we as adults engage with others. Younger children especially learn by observing others, and they hear almost everything. You may not even realize some of the things they're picking up on, but I can guarantee they're watching and listening.
Interaction with Others
Something I learned early on as a federal air marshal was how to interact with uniformed police officers in the event we made contact. I didn't wear a uniform, but I was armed pretty much all the time, both on and off duty. Undercover law enforcement officers need to understand how to communicate the fact that they're carrying a weapon in a way that doesn't cause panic or confusion during the interaction.
Here's an example. Let's say I'm pulled over for speeding (it happens). I would pull safely to the side of the road, turn my hazard lights on, turn off the vehicle, turn off the radio, roll the window down, and place both hands on the steering wheel where they could be seen. Once the officer approaches, they almost always ask, "Do you have any drugs or weapons in the car?" I always answer with, "Sir (or ma'am), I have my duty weapon on me, and my credentials are in my back pocket." They usually respond with, "Who do you work for?" I tell them, and with my identity established, I'm normally sent on my way with a warning to slow down.
I want to make it clear that I'm no speed demon, but I have been pulled over a few times, and as embarrassing as it may be, I've been pulled over while I've had my family in the car with me. I've never taken the time to explain to my children the intricacies of the interaction, but believe me, they were watching.
Kids Watch and Listen
One year my wife and I decided to take the kids from Las Vegas, where I was stationed at the time, to Idaho to visit her brother's family for Thanksgiving. We left late one evening to return home. I planned on making the ten-hour drive at night while the kids were comfortably asleep in the back.
As I drove through the seemingly abandoned desert, I started to let my impatience get the best of me, and I sped up ... considerably. When the blue light hit me, I looked down and saw that I was going a little over one hundred miles per hour. I figured I was getting a ticket for sure this time, so I pulled over, went through my routine, and patiently awaited my fate. I had the window down as my wife dug out the registration.
The officer approached the driver's side of the car and shined the flashlight inside. I thought the kids were still asleep in the back when he asked, "Do you have any idea how fast you were going?"
That's when my youngest, Emily, still in her car seat, started yelling from the back, "HE HAS A GUN!" The level of panic and escalation at that point was beyond words. The officer probably assumed I had kidnapped an entire family and quickly backed away from the car as he reached for his sidearm. I went into full explanation mode, "Sir, I'm law enforcement! It's my duty weapon!" It took what seemed like an eternity, but we finally got things worked out. I explained who I was and why I was armed.
I didn't have a good excuse for the speeding, but once we all calmed down and the adrenaline stopped pumping, we both had a good laugh about the situation. I didn't end up in jail that night, but the officer did have some words of wisdom for little Emily: "Honey, I know you were just trying to help, but next time let Daddy tell the police officer about the gun, okay?" Emily smiled; we all thanked the officer and very slowly made our way back home.
I tell this story to emphasize the fact that even though you may not think your children are watching and listening, they are. They pick up on the slightest details, and they're perfectly capable of mimicking what they see you doing at the least opportune moments. That's why we must communicate effectively with our children and work with them as opposed to against them when it comes to explaining the way the world really works. We adults have to set the example when it comes to living situationally aware, and we have to make sure our children understand the importance of that lifestyle.
Children can accomplish a lot, especially when they have the support and protection of a willing parent on their side. But how do we go about addressing their concerns regarding violence?
Highly publicized acts of violence, particularly in schools, often confuse and upset children who may feel like they're in danger. They're naturally going to look to adults for information and guidance on how they should react to these events. Parents can help children feel more secure by talking openly and honestly with them about their concerns. Below are a few recommendations from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) on how to help reassure your child when they begin to feel threatened by violence.
• Reassure children that they are safe and that schools are safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay and assist them in expressing those emotions appropriately.
• Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk—signs such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work.
• Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
• Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they're indeed safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance in separating reality from fantasy. Discuss the efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
• Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines, communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs. Remember the role that situational awareness plays in this process.
• Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they'd go if they feel threatened or at risk.
The NASP also suggests emphasizing the following points when discussing the topic of violence with your children.
• Schools are safe places. School staff works with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, and hospitals) to keep you safe. The school building is secure because (talk about specific school procedures).
• We all play a role in school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous, or frightened. (Again, stress the critical role that situational awareness plays in this.)
• There is a difference between reporting, tattling, or gossiping. You can provide valuable information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
These are sound suggestions that emphasize the necessity of working together to help your child feel safe and express their concerns about violence. Situational awareness is essential to your child's safety, but you can't just force-feed them this information without listening to their questions and concerns. When you start this program with your child, take the time to ask them questions and make sure they comprehend the significance of each point you're making.
The only way to be certain that your child is getting the most out of these lessons is to let them know that you're working as a team. There's no obstacle that they can't overcome when they know they have you in their corner.
The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger Before It Spots Your Kids: Teaching Situational Awareness to Keep Children Safe by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), pub date May 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-811-7