For many families, living on an installation is like stepping back in time. Neighbors know and look out for each other, there’s a sense of community, and kids can ride their bikes without parents worrying that they may be snatched. But on-base life still comes with some dangers that can be avoided, or at least, guarded against.
(As with any parenting advice, make sure to do what’s right for your family and the developmental, mental, and behavioral health of your child.)
1. Get familiar
For many kids, life on an installation means getting a wider berth of places to go and things to do. When moving to any new base–or as your kids grow and are allowed to go further away from home on their own–make sure everyone in the family is familiar with the layout of the base and how to get home from places that will become your children’s haunts. Go on a family bike ride or walk to point out places like the playground or school. While you’re out, make sure to model safe behavior like looking both ways before crossing the street or using the appropriate signals while biking.
2. Teach them skills
Every PCS means new faces and new places. It can also be the perfect time to teach new skills to your children as they get used to new surroundings and new responsibilities. Do your kids know how to:
- Swim? The water can be a dangerous place for kids (and adults, too). . . and many military families live close to places with a lot of water. Enroll your kids in a swimming class or jump in the pool and teach them yourself. If you’re scared of the water or can’t swim, this is a great opportunity to lead by example, face your fears, and learn together.
- Boat? If your child goes kayaking or canoeing with a friend, will they know how to safely spend time in the water? Do they know what to do if the boat flips over? Will they wear a sanctioned flotation device. . . or will they eschew it to look cool?
- Bike? Before the kids get free range of the neighborhood, they should know how to obey posted signs and conventions of the road, as well as how to signal appropriately. Explain the importance of bike helmets, too, so they’ll wear them even when they’re not under your watchful eye.
- Get help if they need it? A new PCS means new neighbors and a new state or even country. If they’re at home alone or without you, would they know what to do if an emergency situation arises? Update your contact information and keep a list of sanctioned, safe phone numbers they can call if they need help.
- Be safe on base? If your kids have never lived in the middle of the desert (or at a beach or abroad), they need to learn how to be safe in that particular environment. This might look like talking about heat exhaustion or how to identify a rattlesnake or scorpion.
3. Chaperone if you’re worried
Military families are often stressed and parents often find themselves the sole caretaker. Sometimes this means that older kids end up watching younger kids or having no adult supervision at all. While it can be appropriate, depending on the maturity and age of your children, there are often moments when adults should really be around to make sure everything is okay. Installations and states may have rules and laws governing how long and in what circumstances children may be left alone. Make sure you know what they are so that you don’t run afoul of them.
If you can’t be around but have concerns, see if you can link up with friends or close neighbors who can watch the kids when they go to the pool or beach. You can even create a rotating schedule so no one adult bears the entire brunt of watching the kids. The MWR and youth center are another great place to look for structured activities that will have an adult around when you can’t be.
There are some places that children should never be left alone and need an adult chaperone. Always supervise bath time and water activities. The CDC reports that there are 10 non-boating-related drowning deaths a day in the US. 20 percent of those are children ages 14 or younger. Even if death does not result from drowning, brain damage and other medical traumas can occur.
Similarly, children should never be left in a hot car alone. While there has been a great amount of controversy surrounding this issue in recent years, the truth is that cars can heat up quickly even when it feels cool outside. For little bodies, the hot temperature–even for a short period of time–can be devastating. CNN reports that an average of 37 children a year die from the effects of being left in hot cars.
4. Set boundaries
Do your kids know exactly where they’re allowed to go on base? Do they know what’s off-limits, too? Put it this way: If they were chasing Pokemon, could would they know where to stop? Even if you think they know, it doesn’t hurt to talk about boundaries–both the boundaries that you, as a parent, have and those that the military and government have. Teach them situational awareness, too, so they can make good decisions on their own.
5. Listen to your gut
On-base life can feel idyllic, but it’s part of the real world. Base housing can be unsafe, there are dangerous people in the world (even on an installation), and freak accidents occur. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your parental instincts and take action. The worst? You’ll feel a little silly. The best? You may prevent the unthinkable from happening.
By J.G. Noll