A Primer on Self-Protection and Family Safety

The best defense is to be prepared

Situational awareness, or remaining alert of your surroundings, is one of the most important and proactive things you can do to avoid danger.
A Primer on Self-Protection and Family Safety
It's important to be aware of your surroundings, as well as to look aware. (Trismegist san/Shutterstock)
Walker Larson
Parents, and fathers in particular, have a responsibility to protect their families. There are plenty of “wolves” out there, looking for unprepared and unprotected sheep to harm. Fathers should be “sheepdogs” who keep the wolves at bay. This article offers a primer on ways to minimize risks and keep your family safe in public and online.

Use Cooper’s Color Codes

Our main goal should be to avoid dangerous situations before they happen. According to bodyguard and personal protection expert Nick Hughes’s book "How to Be Your Own Bodyguard," 75 percent of self-protection takes place before an attack. Hughes writes that the “soft-skills” of personal protection—avoidance and deterrence—are more important than the “hard-skills”—the use of force. “If you [put] into practice the soft skills, the chances of you ever needing the hard skills will be greatly diminished.”
Perhaps the most important rule for keeping yourself and your family safe is to remain alert and aware of your surroundings so you can proactively avoid danger. This is referred to as “situational awareness.” One way to foster this habit is to monitor your awareness levels using the Color Codes of Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, laid out in his book "Principles of Personal Defense." In Cooper’s system, each color represents a potential degree of awareness and readiness to address a threat.

In Condition White, you are unaware, unprepared, and oblivious; you aren’t thinking about the possibility of a threat at all. In Condition Yellow, you are relaxed but attentive and monitoring for any potential dangers. Condition Orange means that you’ve identified a specific potential threat and are ready to act; you’re on high alert and you’re considering your options should things go south. In Condition Red, you are in an actual dangerous situation and taking action; you’re focused on the emergency and trying to resolve it. If you slip into the final zone, Condition Black, you’re in a state of panic or shock, leading to a collapse of physical and mental performance.

Generally, you wish to avoid both extremes on the continuum: white and black. When in public, you want to remain in Condition Yellow—scanning for threats, but still relaxed. If something goes down, you want to remain in Condition Orange or Red and not fall into Condition Black where you can no longer react effectively due to panic.

Establish a Baseline and Look for Unusual Behavior

Every public setting has an expected atmosphere. There are normal behaviors for people to engage in for that particular place and time. When you enter a new situation, ask yourself, What is normal behavior for this time and place? That is the “baseline,” and it helps you better identify anyone or anything that stands out as abnormal—an anomaly. In "Left of Bang," Patrick Van Horne, veteran and instructor of the Marine Combat Profiling system, writes, “An anomaly is any variation in the baseline—and what we are primarily searching for is anomalies. Anomalies are things that either do not happen and should, or that do happen and shouldn’t.” And they can often be clues to impending danger.

If you’re at a movie theater, for example, normal behavior would include people sitting in their seats, eating snacks, watching the screen, laughing or crying or whispering in response to the movie, checking their phones, etc. Someone standing at the side of the theater for a long period of time and looking at the people in the audience instead of the movie would be unusual behavior. That’s an anomaly, and it’s something to pay attention to.

Van Horne discusses how people often have a “gut feeling” that something isn’t right prior to some tragic or dangerous situation. This happens when we subconsciously notice anomalies. The more we can consciously notice anomalies, the greater our advantage. It’s important to trust that gut feeling.

If you do come into close contact with a stranger, especially if they’ve already exhibited anomalous behavior, you may want to watch their body language. In "How to Be Your Own Bodyguard," Hughes provides four basic types of body language that are red flags—he calls them “pre-fight indicators.” These signs of a possible impending attack are: grooming (touching the face), glancing (looking around to make sure there are no witnesses, cameras, or law enforcement), hands (whether moving in the area of the waist where a weapon might be concealed or hidden behind the back or in a pocket), and weight-shift balance (balancing and positioning the body for a strike). Van Horne spends a lot of time analyzing types of anomalies in "Left of Bang," especially in people’s body language. You can learn more about identifying anomalous body language in that book.

Don’t Get Selected by Criminals

Another way to keep yourself and your family safe is to avoid being selected by the bad guys as a target. Criminals tend to avoid people who exude confidence and readiness. If they can, they will choose someone who does not appear alert, ready, and prepared to fight.
In 1981, Betty Grayson and Morris Stein conducted a study where they filmed people walking on the street and then showed the footage to individuals who were incarcerated for violent crimes. They asked the prisoners to identify which of the people in the video would make good targets and which would not, and there was remarkable consistency in the criminals’ choices. Criminologist Gershon Ben Keren summarizes the findings: “the Grayson and Stein study shows that walking upright, in a natural/fluid manner, without an exaggerated stride-length is one way to lessen your chances of appearing on a predator’s radar.”
One of the main pieces of advice from Leonard A. Sipes, Jr., a former senior specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and expert on crime and safety, is “Do not appear distracted.” He echoes the principle to stay in Condition Yellow by being aware of your surroundings, and looking like you’re aware.
At the same time that you remain aware of your surroundings, you also want to move with the herd and blend in with those surroundings. Gray Man Theory holds that you should try to blend in with the crowd in order to avoid detecting unwanted attention. You don’t want to stand out in a way that makes you or your family members potential victims—as many of the “targets” in the Grayson Stein study did. Gray Man Theory is sort of the inverse of detecting anomalies in others—don’t exhibit anomalies yourself.

Specific Points for Women and Children

Sipes says that the number one method of preventing violent crime is to stay with someone else at all times because most violent crimes occur when you are alone. This is true of both sexes and all ages, but common sense tells us it’s especially important for women and children. If you have a large number of children, it can be hard to keep tabs on them all the time. To help with this, one firefighter and paramedic I spoke to suggested using the “buddy system.” Older kids can be assigned to stay with and watch over younger kids at all times. You can even make a game out of it.

In addition, Sipes recommends keeping a cell phone with you so you can call for help if needed—just remember not to get sucked into your phone to the point you lose awareness of your surroundings or appear like a distracted, easy target to the bad guys.

Everyone—but especially women with children—should keep their car doors locked and windows up at all times. Make sure you have plenty of gas, and leave lots of room at stoplights (Sipes says two car lengths between you and the car ahead of you).

When a woman is a victim of violence or assault, she usually knows the attacker. Women need to be particularly careful whom they let into the home and whose home they go into. In some cases, it might be necessary to leave your own home to reach safety. Always make sure someone knows where you are.

It’s possible to have age-appropriate conversations with children about safety. It’s key that children feel comfortable talking to you about whatever they might be experiencing. They should never be made to feel that they are responsible for attempted victimization. As in the case of women, if someone hurts or tries to hurt a child, the child usually knows them. Sipes writes, “The more you talk to your child, the less he or she will be victimized or use drugs or alcohol to harm themselves.”

Use social media and the internet wisely. This area presents a special danger to children and teens. According to a 2022 report from Bark, a parental control app, 9.4 percent of tweens and 14.2 percent of teens have experienced predatory behaviors online. Bark recommends talking to your child about online safety and teaching them not to share personal information online, such as full name, address, phone number, school name, regular hangout spots, or class schedules.
Obviously, kids shouldn’t be talking about sex online, not least of all because predators target kids who post revealing pictures or engage in sexual conversation online. Kids should never agree to meet someone in person that they only know online. Encourage children to immediately tell you if they experience problematic behavior online, such as someone asking them to send a photo of themselves. Even seemingly innocent photos can be dangerous since it’s possible to find someone’s location using only a photograph.

It's not about being paranoid. It’s about being prepared so you can protect your loved ones.

Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.”
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