How and when do you start talking with your kids about their bodies and being safe around other people? My son is 2 and talking more, and we are wondering when to start talking to him about his body being only for him, about not keeping secrets from us and to tell us if anybody tries to touch him inappropriately. What’s age-appropriate in content? Any ideas on how to say it? Is this conversation different for sons and daughters?
Related to this is the question of what we can do to prevent sexual abuse happening. I have a great deal of fear about this. I had no idea child molestation was so common until I volunteered with an inner healing prayer team at my church and have heard so many stories from women who endured abuse. I am horrified for my children, and this translates into a deep fear about how to handle child care with our kids. Is there any way to know whether my caution is healthy or over-the-top? My husband and I have had some disagreements abut what we’re comfortable with when it comes to babysitting, but I really am having a hard time trusting anyone, really, primarily men.
I totally identify with these questions and fears, and if I had a guaranteed formula for things to do and say which could prevent them from happening, I’d be a millionaire. This is one of the deep and terrible burdens of parenting: knowing there is evil in the world and wanting desperately to protect our children from them, and yet knowing that, in truth, we probably can’t. I don’t know that there’s anything which so reveals how little control we have in life as parenting.
Still, that doesn’t mean we are totally helpless, and so the question is really what can we do. I think your instincts in this are better than you realize, so I’ll add my few thoughts to things you’ve already mentioned.
Talking to our kids about their bodies and touch
We taught our kids the words for eyes, ears, fingers and toes very early; and so it seemed logical to teach our kids the names for the private parts, too (I’m refraining from typing them here not because I’m prudish but because I don’t want the internet’s auto-search features to identify those words and send you ads to match that content!!) From a young age, we talked with our kids about privacy though: certain body parts (and conversations about them) were nothing to be ashamed about, but they were private – which meant for ourselves and family only.
We have always let our kids bath together and get dressed around us, but they are not allowed to touch anybody else’s private parts. I would say most of our conversation about body-touch and privacy has happened in the context of bathing and getting dressed, and these have often been our most hilarious but also our most honest conversations: for example, my not-yet-two year old cornered me as I was getting out the shower and asked with a mixture of curiosity and horror: “Why don’t you have a pen1s? What happened to it? Does it hurt?” I assured him that I’d never had one because I was a girl, and that no, it didn’t hurt. He expressed some sympathy, and then wanted a closer look at these curious girl parts. I shooed him away and told him those were private and so he couldn’t touch or look closer, just like no-one else should be touching or looking at his private parts unless they were a doctor or a parent helping with self-care.
These quick, at-home conversations have provided the bed-rock of our conversations about our bodies and privacy. Stop It Now has a very helpful website with a guide to what conversations are age-appropriate, and there are also a bunch of books out there to help families talk about these things: one of those is The Story of Me (God’s Design for Sex, Book 1), which might be the kind of thing you’re looking for in talking with your preschooler.
Teaching Our Kids What NO Means
I’ve written about this one before. From the youngest age, we have wanted to teach our kids that their “no” matters. If they didn’t like tickling, and said no, we stopped. If a kid yells “no” when they’re building blocks, we swoop in and insist that they respect other people’s no. We have made it a point to never turn those kinds of play into a game: it is never okay in our family to keep teasing/tickling/chasing if someone has said “no”, even if that person is laughing and doesn’t appear to be distressed (because I know that fear and discomfort sometimes manifests as nervous laughter… so we teach our kids that laughter doesn’t always mean a person’s having fun). If they’re saying no, and someone keeps doing it – they are always encouraged to enlist an adult’s help. We want our kids to SAY their own “no”, and to respect the “no” of others, too.
Not Keeping Secrets
I wish I’d realized this one earlier, but just last year a friend told me their family policy has always been that there are no secrets in the family. They have allowed “surprises” (for birthday presents or trips to Disneyland, for example), but surprises always have a “tell-by” date. Secrets don’t.
Building Trust To Hear The Hard Things Without Freaking Out
As my kids are getting older, I’m realizing more and more that I need to be a safe person for my kids to tell things to, even when they’re afraid I might not like what they are saying. This has meant a lot of me learning to just listen and delay my reaction to things instead of swooping in with my Mom-fixit-hat. (More about this here). I try to say this to them with words as well as model it with actions: you can tell me anything and I will still love you. In practice, this means I am having to learn to not freak out when they confess mistakes (of their own or of their friends). My “play it cool” face is getting exercised.
I’ll add this: now that my kids are further into elementary school, I have explicitly started to say to them that sometimes there are people that will warn them not to tell parents things (or else they’ll get hurt, or things will get worse etc). I’ve told my kids this is almost ALWAYS a flag that they should tell me. I’m assuring them that I know more about people, sex, danger, and consequences than any of their friends.
Being Wise About Childcare Arrangements
It is our family rule that we don’t do sleep-overs, unless they are whole family affairs (e.g. all your kids can come camp out with all our kids over night so parents can come out etc) My eldest is at an age where kids are starting to have sleep overs and I’m the kill-joy Mom who will come and get you at 10pm. Sorry, honey. That’s how it is in our family.
As far as baby-sitting goes, we generally have people we know care for our kids in our home, rather than sending our kids elsewhere. We do allow our kids to have play dates at other people’s houses, but visit first and the first play dates are always pretty short in time. We talk to our kids a lot about who was there, what they liked and didn’t like, whether they felt comfortable there etc, to try and keep a pulse on things. For what it’s worth, the people I am most suspicious of are the ones who are very extroverted and touchy-feely with our kids IN OUR PRESENCE. After reading more and more stories of predators, I’m learning that many of those who would “groom” our kids are not the quiet ones but the ones who work hard to establish themselves as safe, fun people in front of the parents…. so, one of the things I look out for with adults who are affectionate with our kids is that they demonstrate a respect for the kids (and our) boundaries in our presence (for example, they ask “is that okay with your mom?” when offering lemonade).
I have a hard time with the “should I trust men less?” issue, given that most sexual predators are men. But I don’t believe that most men are sexual predators, and I most certainly balk at the idea that my husband, or other dear Christian brothers, should be viewed as untrustworthy by nature simply because they are men. In fact, we really want our children to have a community of healthy, safe relationships with adult men and women around them. But it’s tricky: because how will we know??
We do have friends who have made it a policy to not allow any men to care for their children if they are unaccompanied by women/their wives. This was awkward for us at some point because they wouldn’t let their kids play with ours at a park in my husband’s care… but at the end of the day we respect that rule and try not to take it personally. It’s not our rule though, although we are always mindful of how many adults/which adults will be present when we say yes to an invitation for child care.
The unnerving thing is that, like all people, we hope to rely on our intuition to discern whether a person is trustworthy or not, and the terrifying thing about stories of child abuse is how parents tell the same story that they trusted this adult, and had no idea what was going on. That our gut feelings can’t be trusted to protect us in this is probably the most unnerving thing of all. For sure, if your instinct tells you not to trust a person – by all means pay attention to that. But instinct alone can’t tell us whether a person is trustworthy – that’s why predators are so successful, and why their evil is so insidious.
I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop deceitful people being deceitful, but I don’t think the solution is to “trust no-one”. Rather, the line we are taking is to try and keep conversation open, to pay attention to when our children or others indicate discomfort or reluctance and not to “shoo” those away, and to maintain a connection to a community of people who will help us be eyes and ears for the welfare of the children around us.
These are not guarantees, but it’s the best I know how to do.
And for the rest? As with all things: we learn to entrust our children to God. Worry ends where faith begins.
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