Hey Kids! What To Do If You Are Trapped in A Trunk by Your Local Madman!

Hi Readers: As a Free-Range parent I believe in preparing kids to be independent and safe. Just as we teach them to “Stop, drop and roll!” in the unlikely event they’re ever on fire, it makes sense to teach them to yell, kick and run in the equally unlikely event some creep tries to grab them.

It is also worthwhile teaching them to say “No!” to any person who tries to get them to do something uncomfortable, and then to “tell” on that person, no matter what that person made them promise. A key phrase, by the way, is to say to your kids, “I won’t be mad at you,” which reassures them that they can talk openly with you about a situation they may worry they caused, or that they feel was “wrong.”

So, agreed: A little preparation goes a long way. But how much preparation are we talking about? In this great blog post on Trueslant, Karen Dukess talks about the lesson her son got in a school program, on what to do if he is kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car.

It would be easy to say, what’s the harm? Why not give children tips on protecting themselves even if they’ll probably never need them? But the harm is this: it fuels the fear that rules the lives of so many parents, that prevents them from letting their children walk to school alone or run an errand or play outside unsupervised or climb a tree because something might happen.

There is one constant in the world: At any moment something indeed MAY happen. Something bad, even. But as a brilliant commenter said here on Free-Range Kids the other day: We seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between “may happen,” and “will happen.” When we blur those two together, life is a roller coaster of parental terror.

Teaching kids some basic self-defense makes sense. Teaching them how to escape from a trunk because the very worst very well could happen (and somehow they’ll be able to summon the skills of Houdini) is enough to make us all give up, lock the doors and huddle inside till they find our bleached bones decades later.

But at least not in a trunk. — Lenore

34 Responses

  1. Survival skills come in many forms…and not just for kids. Several years ago I actually spent some time teaching my wife a few take-down moves. Over the years we have developed various contingency plans for responding to crises. It works. In fact, planning makes you feel safer in a world where the media says the government should be involved.

  2. Many action movies already teach this course. You make sure to cut the gas line after you escape, too, then do a cool trick with matches and…

    …Yeah, not so much with the safety.

    Also, some car trunks have the oh-no-I’m-trapped-and-my-kidnapper-is-very-unobservant pull handle in their trunks, just in case of this very happenstance.

    Can they teach the kids how to get out of a pair of handcuffs and the backseat of a police car? That seems like it’d be infinitely more useful.

  3. We did have conversations about what to do if you “accidentally” fell/got locked into the truck of a car, and we pointed out both the pull tabs that would open the back of the trunk, and the ones that will get you into the back seat of the car.

    We talked about kids accidentally locking themselves into the trunk (which probably also never happens, but happens more often that a “bad guy” putting a child in a trunk) because it is less scary.

    I think you can teach safety skills without teaching terror!

  4. I sometimes wonder if the reason things are so over the top now is because we’re the first ‘Stranger Danger’ generation to have children. I have never found it easy to have the Stranger conversation with my kids, because most strangers are nice, and my kids are the kind of kids who breezily say ‘good morning’ to everyone they meet and why would I want to curtail that? That’s called living in your community (and when I took my eldest to France a couple of years ago she quickly adapted to saying Bonjour to everyone she passed instead). Yet somehow the message has got through – when I suggested to my four year old she wait under a tree halfway between our house and school when she got tired of walking and wait for me to come back (five to ten minutes, though I wasn’t particularly serious, since I knew the 4 year old wouldn’t take me up on my offer), my eldest was very disapproving and said ‘No! She might get stolen!’ I think perhaps once when the eldest took off from me at the shopping centre and I was grumpy I said something about strangers who take children. It’s clearly a powerful idea, and sits heavily in their psyches (perhaps whether they get the stranger danger talk or not – when you are at the centre of the universe and you know about robbers and baddies, why wouldn’t you expect that they might want to take the most precious thing on earth – you?)
    That’s very garbled, but my point is that I think that fear is inherent in children, and perhaps it’s of more value to reinforce that there are very few people in the world who would do that rather than have a funeral director pop by and say ‘this is one way you might get deaded – ooh boogie boogie boogie’

  5. I love this aside from Penni:
    (…when you are at the centre of the universe and you know about robbers and baddies, why wouldn’t you expect that they might want to take the most precious thing on earth – you?)

    That’s a thought well worth exploring: the natural effect on a person’s personality of growing up in an environment where it is obvious that they are the most important thing in the world to everyone around them (which is partially the result of an ever-smaller circle of contacts).

    It wil be interesting to see how this plays out as this generation ages.

    I don’t invest in lottery tickets because I don’t like the odds – my sense of logic tells me they would be an unwise use of my resources. I don’t spend time coaching my four kids on how to escape from a kidnapper primarily for the same reason. We have, however, had some serious discussion about staying safe from lightning, which is a comparatively underrated cause of death. And probably thanks to me, my five-year-old is a bit skittish about tornadoes, though in my experience that is not unreasonable. In my lifetime I have had to run from a tornado passing overhead. I have never had to run from a attacking human predator.

  6. It’s interesting. In the owners’ manual of the last car we bought, it describes the inside trunk safety latch and says something like, “It is up to you whether you instruct your children in how to use this.” I think the automaker was trying to deal with the liability if this was misused (Hey! I told my kids about this and they locked each other in the trunk for fun and then something bad happened!) versus the liability if they discouraged kids from using it (Hey! You told me not to tell my kids about this so they wouldn’t abuse it and then one accidentally got locked in and something bad happened!)

    Anyway, that’s a 2002 vehicle so I’m kind of surprised that it’s not standard on cars to have that safety feature now. But yeah, training your kids to get themselves out of cars if bad guys lock them in is operating under the assumption that life is like “24.” Training them to do it in case of accident or mistake makes much more sense.

  7. This is interesting, and definitely gives me something to think about raising a child. There’s a delicate balance between reinforcing fears and teaching preparedness. A lot of it, I suspect, is in delivery. Such as, “no, the fire is hot, don’t touch”, versus, “OMG GET AWAY FROM THE FIRE YOU COULD GET BURNED.” I think if you don’t panic, and you aren’t scared, your kids probably won’t be either (or at least you won’t be reinforcing their inherent fears.)

  8. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that every time I drive over a bridge with my kids in the car, I review in my head how to get out of a sinking car…? : )

  9. I’m fairly certain I *asked* about the safety lever in our new car when I was 8, and my parents just explained that it’s there “in case you get locked in.” I thought that was pretty stupid, so they further explained that once in a while, almost never, bad people take children that way. I can imagine that being upsetting for some children, but I wasn’t too horrified and wanted to know what you’d do if the car didn’t have a lever. I don’t think they’d have gone out of their way to teach me about it, though, if I hadn’t been curious.

    My dad used to play-fight with me too, by grabbing my wrists with a hand, etc, and when I couldn’t get out he’d explain the weak points (I think this is pretty common, at least amongst all my friend’s fathers, although lately I’ve heard of a few younger fathers I know being too afraid to be rough with their children). I never really associated it with danger, although I guess I knew that “bad people” could grab me in the same way — it was more about paying attention so I could outsmart dad the next time. I think that’s a pretty effective way to teach self defence without teaching paranoia.🙂

  10. Jaynle: My husband plays exactly the same with our 8 yo son when they’re rough housing. If DS gets caught, my husband explains how to get out of the mess. If DS tries to “hit” back and is ineffective, he’s shown the proper way. It’s not that we’re condoning violence, but we both feel it’s important for our son to know that it’s OK to take steps to protect himself when something bad is happening. I would hate to be the parent of a child who can only cower under a desk if someone at school or work goes postal. Self-reliance saves lives, and often more than just one!

  11. 3 kids in New Jersey died in a car trunk a couple years ago. A close relative of mine (adult) was kidnapped and put in a car trunk. (He survived). It happens.

    What I want to know is what type of parent would consciously say, ‘nah, I don’t think I’ll teach my kids that. They know enough stuff already…’

    Childhood is a time for learning. And car trunks really aren’t controversial (like sex ed), it’s just basic mechanics.

    It’s like getting out of the house in a fire, or getting out of the car if it gets stuck in the water. If you’re trapped in anything, stay cool and look for a way out. If you panic you die.

  12. Kids should know how to get out of the trunk of a car in case they climb in one on a hot day for “fun” or get talked into it by friends.

  13. @Penni You know, I reckon you are on to something. You guys’n’gals are the first stranger danger generation. Although I have a just graduated from grade school aged child I am a generation or maybe that’s only half a generation ‘up’ from most people who post here. This could explain why the whole thing seems – to me – such unreal over the top wild eyed nonsense.

    But speaking of beating up fear and terror, my just moved from grade school child had to endure a prolonged ‘transition’ program to high school that seemed designed to – and succeeded in – making the whole thing seem utterly overwhelming and terrifying. You know the sort of stuff: filling in worksheets and having class discussions what was worrying them about the idea of changing to Big School.

    My older kids – let alone – me never had that sort of a ‘transition’ and I have to say that none of us spent the (southern hemisphere) summer in a twist of terror over what was coming as did my youngest.

    Unintended consequences. . . .

    ‘Being prepared’ seems to backfire quite a lot. I remember reading research that said that the idea of taking little kids on familiarisation tours of the hospital ‘in case’ they were admitted at some stage had the unintended consequence of generating a great deal of fear because the kids all thought that the tour was because they WERE going to hospital.

    How about some old wisdom like ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ or we’ll deal with that if/when it happens’.

  14. I actually think how to get out of a trunk is good information to have- but not because of being kidnapped by mad men. My mind is more on hide and seek, and when I, as a nine year old girl, discovered my grandmother’s Lincoln Towncar had a great trunk for hide and seek. I think it’s not so bad to be taught, but perhaps not in the light of “you will be kidnapped some day” so much as in the light of “useful things to know”

  15. At what point are they just simply scaring kids instead of helping them? When does this become institutionally-induced paranoia?

  16. In elementary school we had a safety/self defense unit at the beginning of each year. While I hated our PE teacher with a purple passion – the unit did not make me fearful. The opposite actually. It made me feel in control and powerful.

    When a man drew a gun on two friends of mine – they ran into a back yard and jumped the fence to a friends yard.

    When a weird man approached my sister and her friend they told him to get lost and jumped into a neighbor’s back yard.

    When a schoolmate was kidnapped for ransom – she kicked the guy hard and screamed you are not my Daddy. 2 bystanders grabbed her and ran into shop. The clerks hit an alarm button and the guy took off. (He was caught).

    When Sis and I were home alone and a guy kept calling screaming for my Dad about a work emergency. I called Dad’s boss. Who took care of the immediate problem. Told the big boss what the man had done. So big boss ripped the alarm company the man worked for a new one about swearing at employees kids.

    The unit gave me confidence to do things like call my Dad’s boss and tell him about the guy.

  17. I’m curious, what generation is it that was supposed to have grown up withstranger danger? I was born in ’66 and my grandmother (who took care of me most days) was terrified of me being taken. That was the reason I was not allowed to take dancing. Despite that I did grow up free range- I think she felt safe when I was in the neighborhood because everyone looked out for the kids. One little girl was picked up by stranger in a car one day, but fortunately released her.

    I’ve taught my son about the unlikely possibility of a kidnapping & what to do. And he’s always been pretty naturally cautious/shy – even with people he knows-so I don’t really worry about him.

  18. I think the sanest formula I’ve ever heard for addressing the “stranger” issue was put forward by the pediatrician Penelope Leach. She pointed out that “don’t talk to strangers” is stupid because a) we talk to strangers all the time, it’s only polite to thank the people who do stuff for us and to greet the cashier at the grocery store all the time and b) the people most likely to harm children are NOT strangers, but rather, family.

    Leach suggests, instead, the introduction of the rule “never go anywhere with anyone without first checking with the grownup in charge.” This rule can be introduced to little ones as is. When they get a bit older, and are interested in “bad guys”, it then becomes possible to explain that really, “bad guys” look like everybody else, and there really are not very many of them. Almost everybody cares about kids and wants to keep them safe. But one sure sign that someone is ACTING LIKE a bad guy, is if they suggest breaking the rule about going somewhere without checking with the grownup in charge. Because everybody who cares about kids knows about his rule, and nobody who really cared would suggest breaking it. So if somebody suggests going somewhere without checking with the grown up in charge, the thing to do is to RUN AWAY, preferably yelling “you’re not my mom” or “you’re not my dad” and go straight to the grownup in charge. If they grab you, continue yelling, and do kick, bite punch, whatever it takes till they let you go. We won’t be mad.🙂

  19. Valerie, that’s much the approach I take with my kids. My oldest has been getting the full stranger danger treatment in school and I use it as a chance to discuss what I feel really matters. We talk about how sometimes you will want to talk to a stranger or need to, and that you shouldn’t be leaving with someone you don’t know.

    My oldest two are also in karate classes. I tell them it’s a skill I doubt they’ll ever need, but it’s nice to know. Their sensei gets a bit into stranger danger stuff, but he also talks about how knowing how to take a fall can help in situations other than fighting.

  20. I think it might be a good skill to teach kids for the more likely day when, with or without their consent, their friends lock them in a car trunk.

  21. Coming from Australians point of view, I think this is actually this a skill that should be taught.

    There have been more than a couple of horrific cases of children playing around in cars summer and getting locked in the boots/trunks without adults knowing and dying from heat exhaustion. When the summer temps can easily hit 115F kids locked in hot cars is a serious problem.

    Having said that I don’t think it should be taught in an overly stressful way, but like you teach your child to dial 911(or 000 in Australia) or how to cross the street, just taught as a skill you just might need to know.

    A quick Google search shows this seems to be a problem in hotter US states as well.

  22. I agree with quite a few of the commenters that have mentioned lessons they learned on safety without knowing it was safety. I like the idea of teaching children what to do if they are locked in a trunk of a moving vehicle…you don’t really have to worry about the scenario do you? It seems to me that it would be the same situation for getting peoples attention (i.e. break lights…) whether they were kidnapped or not. And I’m pretty sure a child would know enough that they didn’t want to get “closer” to the kidnapper by going into the car through the back seats if they did happen to be kidnapped.

  23. You know what I told my kids?

    As we discussed what to do if a stranger (yep, it’s the talk), ever asked them to get in their car, or what to do if someone touched them inappropriately, and my kids looked at me stunned. “Will that happen?” they asked.

    “Not likely,” I answered. “You know how we get in a car every day to go places and don’t get in an accident?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Well, it’s like that. It’s why we put on our seat belts. We know that we’re probably not going to get in an accident, but in case we do, we need to have our seat belts on to protect us. I’m telling you guys what to do in case it happens – but it’s not very likely it will.”

    Don’t you know – my kids have still been walking to school, without fear, and actually feeling more empowered because they know what to do. 🙂

    Something that should be said. My sister, who is a cop, asked me, “Do you ever tell them that if someone says ‘If you tell, I’ll kill your mom or dad,’ that it’s ok for them to tell you regardless?” I thought for sure my kids would know, as I’ve told them to tell if someone touches them, it’s ok. Imagine my surprise to hear them both say, “if they wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t tell.” Needless to say, we fixed that by letting them know that no matter what, they should tell. Something to clarify with your kids if you’re discussing tools in their arsenal.

  24. I wonder how much of it was to entertain. I read the blog post Lenore linked to and it sounded from there like it was a useful talk for the most part with this bizzare “and if you get kidnapped and thrown in a trunk” bit thrown in. And I wonder if that wasn’t just added in so the speaker could show them how to be all James Bondish so they would be more engaged in the talk as a whole.

    Not that it’s a good reason for making stranger kidnap seem as likely as being knocked down when you cross the road, but I know when I do talks I often throw in something exotic to add a bit of excitement.

  25. Actually, this training will come in quite handy as Drive-in theatres are starting to make a comeback in some areas!

  26. I think the “How to get out of the car trunk” lesson should be part of the “How does a car work?” course, rather than the “What to do when confronted with a psychopath” postgraduate (never took that one, personally).
    Of course, it should be anyway followed by the “Why on earth would you want to climb into the trunk in the first place, you twit?!” lecture, which is also part of the “This is NOT a toy” subject (compulsory from ages 3-18).

  27. Not to make light, but this was actually the basis for a recent episode of Psyche (you, know…that detective show on USA with Corbin Berson?)

    The shows always start with a vignette from the lead character’s childhood, highlighting some lesson or other taught to the young Shawn Spencer by his uber-serious cop dad. So he gets thrown into the back of a trunk and his dad tells him to get out (then shows him…). Of course it turns out to be useful later. How unexpected.

    Still, I wonder what the connection is, if any?

  28. This may be a ticky-tack point, but….

    Teaching a child how to escape from a trunk in case a madman throws them in one is kinda dumb.

    Teaching a child how to escape from a trunk is pretty smart.

    My inlaws have one of those giant land cruisers. And my son was out playing it their yard, Poppi was bringing in something, and my kid saw the GIANT (Back in high school, we’d call it a “two-body” trunk) and he climbed into it. Poppi closed it without knowing he was in it, since he just ran to the side of the car and closed the trunk. Luckily my son started yelling, which is a perfectly valid way to get out of a trunk.

    But we took the opportunity to show him the safety handle in the trunk, how it glowed in the dark, and all that. He even tried it a couple of times.

    So teaching them how, separated from the insane why, isn’t a bad idea.

  29. I seem to remember tis lesson frokm childhood because kids do, every summer, accidentally lock themselves in trunks. Old refridgerators were part of this conversation too. . .

    Nicola, if your kids were really worried, they could always tell your sister. She’s a cop.

  30. I imagine that some kids would enjoy learning something like that: “All right! if I’m ever kidnapped by an international spy ring, I’m all set!” Some kids, though, are nervous by temperament, and this might bother them (fortunately, they’re probably less likely to climb into a trunk to begin with).

  31. “I think you can teach safety skills without teaching terror!”

    Just repeating this for emphasis! Awesome.

  32. Wow – it never occurred to me that since we only own trucks, we have never taught our kids not to play in a trunk. Time to visit the neighbors!

  33. I have a funny (or sad) story regarding the “may happen” fear mongering! I am part of a local Moms online forum where someone recommended an au pair they knew personally, who was looking for a new family to work for. The very first reply to that e-mail was this, “Have you seen the movie The Hand That Rocks the Cradle??” It’s a movie about a maniac nanny who tries to murder the mom and steal the kids and the husband. It’s a movie! Not even a “news” report. This is paranoia at a whole new level. I think we should all train our kids to shoot zombies in the brains, because the government *may* be working on a virus that *may* escape and turn us into the undead!

  34. Enough kids have been trapped in trunks (mostly accidentally–playing hide and seek or whatever around a vehicle) that new cars are now required to have a lighted button inside the trunk, in case this happens. It happens and it’s easily preventable, so I think it should be taught along with all of the other normal safety information.

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