Ask Me: How Can I Protect My Kids From Sexual Abuse?

How can I protect my kids from sexual abuse?

Dear Bronwyn,

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. 

Please help,

Cautious Mama

Dear CM,

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.

Love,

Bronwyn

Got a Question? Send it to me here. You can ask me anything. 

 

Children Have Feelings. Just Like Grownups.

girl-person-human-femaleMy eight-year old curled up under my arm and sighed an old-soul sigh. “You know, mom, grown ups sometimes think that kids don’t feel things like they do. But we do.”

I was about to correct her: of course I know that kids have feelings. That day had seen no less than three full-blown wailing fits of our youngest Feeling All The Feels about being told no/having to share/not being allowed (another) snack. What is the preschooler life if not Full of Drama?

But that’s not what she was saying. Or maybe, that’s exactly what she was saying. Because I, like other grownups, have a tendency to dismiss the drama and in doing so, sometimes invalidate the real emotion underneath there. “Tantrums get you nothing,” we’ve been telling our kids since they were little. “Whining doesn’t work.”

But my eldest kid has a point: she feels anger. She feels grief. She feels loneliness, and injustice, and jealousy. She feels joy, and compassion, and generosity. Kids may not have language for all those feelings (many adults don’t either), and they may not express them appropriately (again, many adults don’t either) – but I’m making a mistake if I treat my kids as if their responses are attention-getting-behaviors without acknowledging the real emotions that underlie them.

I’ve been trying to pay attention to what my daughter said—that little truth that everyone, no matter how small, has feelings—and the strangest thing has been happening: I’m growing in empathy. My whining preschooler is whining, and the whining is not okay, but somehow it has helped me to think that he might be lonely or frustrated or feeling invisible. My kids are fighting and doors get slammed, and somehow it helps to remember that I also feel irritated and frustrated when I have to share space with others all day long and that this squabble is not just about our kids forgetting polite manners or the house-rules about slamming doors. And, later in the day, when a telemarketer calls just in the middle of the dinner rush, it helps to remember that this person’s sole goal in life is not to sell me a product, but that they have a life and that they have feelings, too. “No, thank you, I’m hanging up now” are better words than what I was tempted to say…

Kids have feelings. Just like grownups. I feel like I should know that, but as with so many things in life – I’m learning it afresh in the real-world of child-raising. And just in case you find the reminder as helpful as I did, I’m sharing it with you.

I’ll be a Mermaid for Jesus

The cashier was bagging the final groceries before she asked me the question: “So, how come you have glitter all over you? Are you a preschool teacher? Did a craft go wrong?”

MermaidBron

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me…

Nope.

Not a preschool teacher (oh the horror!) Not doing crafts. The real reason for my high state of sparkle this week is that, together with two friends, I am spending this week dressed as a mermaid.

With a tail.

And long, impossibly-bright-colored hair.

And a whole lotta glitter.

My two mermaid friends (who are GORGEOUS, but cropped from the picture because they’re very private sea-people) and I have the task of teaching the Bible story at our church’s annual Vacation Bible Camp, and since the theme is “Deepsea Discovery” and the whole plaice is decked out with underwater decor, we decided to suit up for the task. Fintastic.

[Apologies for the puns, friends, but lame jokes are my coping mechanism and I. am. tired.]

We have 252 kids (and 80 junior and adult kelpers) swimming around campus this week (they’re in school…) learning that God is with them wherever they go. The theme of the days are that God knows us (like he knew Noah!), he hears us (like he heard Jonah in the belly of a big fish), he strengthens us (like he helped Peter walk on water), and he loves and sends us (as he did his disciples). Five days. Five lessons. Five days of brightly colored-themed-and-still-nutritious snacks.

It’s a high energy week, and even though I’m an extrovert, this week still leaves me flounder-ing. Working with kids is not my strong suit, but as I’ve written before, I keep signing up because I know what a difference it made in my own life to have adult volunteers tell me about Jesus at VBS and in Sunday School. It changed my life.

And so here I am: standing on campus in a highly-glittered state, wearing a thick wig in triple-digit heat, with a lycra suit outlining EVERY contour of the lower half of my body…. and in this moment I am so grateful for the words the Apostle Paul penned in 1 Corinthians 4:10: We are fools for Christ. We are madmen. (or mermen, as the case may be). And just a few paragraphs later in 1 Corinthians 9:22: To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

Or, as the case may be: to the little fish, I become a fish, in order to win the fishies for Christ.

For one week, I’m one of a sea of volunteers who are laying aside our preferences: singing louder than we’re comfortable with, doing dance moves that make the Macarena look choreographed by comparison, playing water games and wearing outfits. Why? Because there are 252 little people here who are DEEPLY loved by Jesus and need to know that. And if I keep my eye on them—rather than the itch of the wig or the sweat of the suit—it makes all the difference. For if they find and keep the treasure this week—the truth that they are known, heard, helped and wildly loved by God—they are rich beyond all counting of it.

Pray with us that they’ll find it 🙂

 

Why I Don’t Want My Kids To Be Fearless

Fearless kids

There are many things I want for my children: Kindness. Gentleness. Courage. Love. But one thing I don’t want for my kids is for them to be fearless.

I’ve been listening to a bunch of platitudes that we Older People offer scared kids: “there’s nothing to be afraid of”, “this won’t hurt”, “it’ll be okay”… and you know what? Sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes there is something to be afraid of. Sometimes it will hurt. And sometimes, it won’t be okay.

Not that I want our kids to be quivering bundles of anxiety, afraid to stick out their neck and look at the world – but I want my kids to be appropriately fearful: fearful of things that are, in fact, dangerous. I want them to be afraid of fast cars, drunk friends, and the things you could find on the internet. I want them to be afraid of playing with the supernatural. I want them to keep their distance from the ledge, from drugs, from cavalier attitudes to sex and death.

There’s another word that comes to mind when I think about some of the “fearless” people I’ve met: foolish. People who live as if leap without looking, believing that “it couldn’t happen to them”. They believe they are invincible. Bulletproof. They think there is little, if any, correlation between their choices and consequent events. That they’ll “be just fine”, because after all, haven’t they been hearing that “there was nothing to be afraid of” since they were itty-bitty little ones?

This thought came to me as I was talking with a friend about why I’m uncomfortable with some of the TV shows my kids want to watch. One in particular has increasingly included themes with ghosts and the forces of evil, and it shows in my boys’ play. That particular show is no longer allowed. I hadn’t quite nailed down why until I found myself blurting it to a friend: “It would be one thing if I could just pooh-pooh the show and say ‘oh, that’s not real’, but the danger for me here is that this show flirts with things that are really real and from which I want my kids to keep a healthy distance. It blurs the lines, and I feel like they’re becoming flippant about the existence of evil, as if you can flirt with really dark things and simply dispel them with a quick change into a brightly colored lycra suit and a ninja-move.”

In short, I want my kids to be a little afraid of evil, and many “hero shows” don’t respect that. For all the debacle about Harry Potter, I at least feel that it teaches a healthy respect for the dark side, whatever that may look like.

So yes, I want my kids to be a little fearful. Appropriately fearful. I want them to fear the spirit world enough to not mess around with Ouija boards when they are teens. I want them to fear my wrath enough not to play in the street… at least until they’re old enough to develop a fear of the injuries that car accidents can cause. I want them to fear death enough to not text while they drive. I want them to fear the sea enough to not try and swim against a rip tide.

A failure to fear things that really can hurt us is actually foolishness. And fearing—in the sense of a healthy-respect-for-our-vulnerability-to-powers-beyond-our-control —is the path to wisdom. I think that’s what the Bible means by the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom: not that we quake and cower before a mean and capricious God (for he is not like that), but we take it seriously that he is not to be trifled with. God–like fire, and the ocean—can be engaged with, and a source of joy and delight, but only if there’s a healthy respect… or fear… of how very vulnerable we are.

I’m not saying I want to raise fearful kids, where fear of loss or rejection or whatever becomes their anthem. Remember our friend Disgust from Inside Out? Disgust does important work in protecting us from poisonous snacks or scenarios (“eeeew. Eat THAT? No thank you.”) And Sadness? She is vital to our learning empathy and connection with people. As uncomfortable as anger, disgust, sadness, and fear may be – they serve an important purpose in teaching us to relate wisely to the world inside and the world out there.

So no, I don’t want fearless kids. I want kids just a little afraid of the really scary things out there, with the courage and wisdom to make better choices in the face of fear.

 

Image Credit: Fear/Juan Julbe (Flickr Creative Commons), edited by Bronwyn Lea

I had a hippopotamus (Patrick Barrington)

hippo

I had a Hippopotamus

I had a Hippopotamus, I kept him in a shed
And fed him upon vitamins and vegetable bread
I made him my companion on many cheery walks
And had his portrait done by a celebrity in chalk

His charming eccentricities were known on every side
The creatures’ popularity was wonderfully wide
He frolicked with the Rector in a dozen friendly tussles
Who could not but remark on his hippopotamuscles

If he should be affected by depression or the dumps
By hippopotameasles or the hippopotamumps
I never knew a particle of peace ’till it was plain
He was hippopotamasticating properly again

I had a Hippopotamus, I loved him as a friend
But beautiful relationships are bound to have an end
Time takes alas! our joys from us and robs us of our blisses
My hippopotamus turned out to be a hippopotamisses

My house keeper regarded him with jaundice in her eye
She did not want a colony of hippopotami
She borrowed a machine gun from from her soldier nephew, Percy
And showed my hippopotamus no hippopotamercy

My house now lacks that glamour that the charming creature gave
The garage where I kept him is now silent as the grave
No longer he displays among the motor tyres and spanners
His hippopomastery of hippopotamanners

No longer now he gambols in the orchards in the spring
No longer do I lead him through the village on a string
No longer in the morning does the neighbourhood rejoice
To his hippopotamusically-modulated voice.

I had a hippopotamus but nothing upon earth
Is constant in its happines or lasting in its mirth
No joy that life can give me can be strong enough to smother
My sorrow for what might-have-been a hippopotamother.

By Patrick Barrington
Illustration by Corrie Haffly.
***********

I learned this poem for a talent show when I was 9, and have loved it ever since. I chose it as an excuse to revisit all its delightful humor with my kids, and also because I couldn’t wait to see Corrie’s hippo illustration 🙂

Pick of the Clicks 10/23/2015

Happy weekend, friends! Just a few this week, but they’re GO-OO-OO-OO-D: enjoy!

PofClicks

This is so awesome: Sesame Street introduced their first character with Autism—Meet Julia. I watched Sesame Street for the first time in my 30s, and loved it straight away (the Count is my favorite! Von. Too. Tree. ah ah ah ah.) I didn’t think I could love it more… but now I do: what a huge contribution it makes to have beloved muppets teach us how to love kids of all kinds.

Excellent thoughts from Russell Moore: How Confidence Makes Us Kind.

But we are not the voice of the past, of the Bible Belt to a post-Christian culture of how good things used to be. We are the voice of the future, of the coming kingdom of God. The message of the kingdom isn’t “You kids, get off our lawn.” The message of the kingdom, is, “Make way for the coming of the Lord.”

“The arc of history may be long, but it bends towards Jesus.”

This is extraordinary story-telling and journalism from Sophia Jones following Syrian Refugees from country to country: 1000 Miles In Their Shoes.

Truth: I don’t like to link to the same people two weeks in a row on Pick of the Clicks… I try to keep things broad. But I can’t help it this week, because this article from Jessica Mesman Griffiths is truly EXCELLENT. So thought-provoking, so important. READ THIS: The Spiritual Child – The Next Big Idea in Parenting.

 I was a normal teenager struggling on the path of individuation under a mountain of grief. I needed someone, anyone, really, to stand by my side, to say “I’m not leaving,” to say “I see your suffering”—and our loving God sees your suffering. To say, as Miller says, “your pain is real—I know it.”

Also, since I’m repeating honors, Alexandra Petri KILLS it with this one: Famous Quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting.

“Let my people go.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Pharaoh, listen, I totally hear where you’re coming from on this. I totally do. And I don’t want to butt in if you’ve come to a decision here, but, just, I have to say, would you consider that an argument for maybe releasing these people could conceivably have merit? Or is that already off the table?”

Cindy Brandt always makes me think, and this post is no exception: Three Reasons Why We Don’t Pray The Sinner’s Prayer With Our Children. I think her third point (belonging > believing) resonates deeply with me, especially after my month-long thought experiment on what it means to belong.

Halloween is coming up, and a few people have asked me what I think: so here’s this from me at Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics last year on finding cultural nuance in the Halloween debate: My First American Halloween. (Hint: the holiday is really more American than religious or irreligious)

This old clip came to mind this week, so funny that I thought I’d share it this week for old times’ sake:

Haha. Gotta love Ross.

And from me this week:

When it’s time to hang up the super-mom cape (and put on pajamas),

and an older post which got a lot of love this week: On raising beautiful girls.

Also, I’m giving away a copy of the gorgeous new NIV Bible for Women (which includes devotions from yours truly – EEEK!) You can enter up to four times, and entries close Wednesday. Best of luck.

 

A 30-Year Echo

Not quite a year ago, with trembling fingers I sent my first article to an online magazine. The magazine was Ungrind, and the kind editor who fielded my nervous query was Ashleigh Slater. Since then, I’ve come to know Ashleigh as an online friend and so appreciate her wisdom, gentleness and sense of fun. I’m thrilled to introduce her as part of the Words That Changed My World series.

 

6898657334_04a5a5f39f_z

Photo Credit: Pedro Riberio Simoes – Flickr Creative Commons

I wasn’t there. And so I’m not really sure how old the boy was that pivotal day so many years ago.

He was old enough to have passed that seventh grade year when his parents separated, and then divorced. The year first spent at a difficult new school in a new town. Old enough to have marked the time when his mom and dad both remarried. Marriages that, little did he know then, would go on to grow over thirty anniversaries. And old enough to know well the torment of middle school bullies. The ones whose taunts elicited silent tears later shed at his school desk, his face hidden in the shelter of folded arms.

While I may not know what birthday this hurting boy celebrated last, what I do know is that on this particular day a proclamation of sorts was spoken over him. Words of life were carefully uttered in a small kitchen in a small town in Michigan that changed the course of his life.

“Ted, if anyone ever asks you to describe yourself,” his stepmom Alice remarked, “tell them you’re a happy person.”

Those words were taken to heart that day. Rather than let the pain of divorce and change and school bullies bitter him, this boy found himself thinking, “I am a happy person. That’s me.”

Decades later, I can attest that he is.

Happy.

Still.

This once-towhead little boy now grown big is my husband. And I realize that after eleven years of marriage, I owe Alice an overdue thank you. For her self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts has affected me too.

You see, Ted’s upbeat, positive personality makes our marriage better. He brings a lightheartedness to our relationship that’s helped ease the hard times. That’s kept me laughing when a smile’s difficult to come by. He’s been the optimist to my often pessimist.

And while I think that some of Ted’s contented self was hard-wired into his God-given DNA, I believe that Alice’s words came at a pivotal moment in his life. At a time when cynicism and defeatism could have easily taken root. She didn’t limit what she professed to the obvious: to a muddled boy that perhaps felt beaten down by circumstance. Instead, she gazed ahead to what Ted could be and took the time to verbally spur him toward that.

Now, with our own small ones, Ted continues what Alice started. He speaks those same blessed words over one of our daughters.

This girl of ours struggles with a melancholy personality. Some days she’s a glass is completely empty sort of child. Other days, it’s half-empty. And while at times I’ve shaken my head and asked her, “Are you ever happy?” Ted follows in Alice’s footsteps, speaking over her, “You are a happy girl.”

He inspires me to do the same. This once-towhead little boy now grown big gently reminds me, as Lisa-Jo Baker writes in her book Surprised by Motherhood, that “children are born of the Spirit as much as of their parents’ DNA, and perhaps that’s where we should focus.”

With our words, we can squelch life, tear down, deflate, demean, and bring a kind of death that doesn’t kill the body, but disfigures the soul.

Or we can choose to speak life.

Words spoke creation into existence. Everything from nothing. And then that living Word – through whom all things were made – became tangible and showed us that words don’t return empty. He demonstrated through His love for fishermen and a tax collector and an adulterous woman and little children who longed to come to Him, that a word aptly spoken is life-giving.

And perhaps, just like it did for Ted, this profession will take root in our little girl. One day, these gentle words her papa has lovingly spoken over her again and again may be ones she speaks to herself, as she determines, “I am a happy girl,” rather than letting the disappointments and challenges of life bitter her.

On that day – the day I pray this papa’s proclamation shows itself to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own – those words spoken over Ted thirty years ago will prove their fitness by touching yet another life.

And who knows? Maybe these words, professed so many years ago by Alice Mae Slater to her stepson, will splash beyond our little family, and perhaps even touch you.

 

ashleigh slaterAshleigh Slater is the author of the book, Team Us: Marriage Together. As the founder and editor of the webzine Ungrind and a writer with almost 20 years of experience, she unites the power of a good story with biblical truth and practical application to encourage readers. Ashleigh and her husband, Ted, have been married for more than a decade. They have four daughters and reside in Atlanta, Georgia. To learn more, visit AshleighSlater.com.