"Show me a child who
knows nothing about sexuality,
and you've just introduced me
to my next victim."
When Brooke Galloway of the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center and the Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad organization shared this quote with the Middle School Moms Mastermind, I was horrified but also heartened.
I was horrified because I hate to think of the deliberate evil of a person praying on the young and the vulnerable for their own gain. When we consider the statistic that 93% of minors are sexually harassed or assaulted by people known to them, it makes it hard for us to encourage our children to form relationships with other adults and mentors. On the other hand, studies on what helps children be resilient find that having 3 or more caring adults outside of one’s parents is a strong indicator that a child will thrive.
So what is a parent to do? Do other adults pose a risk or are they a safety measure?
What the above quote suggests to me is that while there are risks, as parents we have the power to develop our child’s gut instincts about what is right and wrong. When we get over our own discomfort and talk to our kids about their bodies, their private parts (using clear labels like penis and vagina, not cutesy ones), boundaries about who can touch and/or see their private parts and in what circumstances, we empower them to know and trust their own bodies and their own limits.
When we help them anticipate what might happen or what might put them in a difficult situation, we give them the chance to avoid that situation. For example, just as I might prepare a child by anticipating what to expect in a store or going to a theater performance, I can prepare him for a playdate or a sleepover. I can ask about what will people be doing and where they will be doing it. I can remind him, “You are there to see your friend, so stick with your friend and do what he is doing.” If you know there are other people in the house--an older sibling or relative--let your child know that while you know and trust his friend, you don’t know his brother, relative, etc. and even when you know them, it is best not to be alone with them.
When my daughter was young and asked why it was best not to be alone with them, I told her, “Not everyone has the same limits about their bodies that we have in our family, and while it is always okay for you to tell someone they have crossed your limit, I would rather not put you in a situation where you have to say that. That is why I will not let Coach or Uncle John drive you home alone.”
Protecting but not over protecting
This is a tricky line! I did not want her to be fearful, but I also didn’t want to trust where I couldn’t see.
I very much wanted my daughter to have good relationships with the adults around her. Having been the caring adult in many kids’ lives—and having had caring adults rooting for me in a way that sometimes parents just can’t—I know the value of having a whole village supporting your growth and development. Knowing that not just your parents but others in your life are proud of you and are noticing who you are in the world and want good things for you connects you to your community.
Better to error on the side of offending
A parent’s fear, of course, is that that interest will be too personal, too signaled out. Your best protection against that is to keep the lines of communication open and to not let things slide. Let’s say, for example, that your child’s coach gives her a birthday card. On the one hand, how thoughtful! But still I would ask. Does Coach send all the kids a birthday card? No? Why do you think he sent you one? Your child is likely to say something like, “I don’t know. He just likes me ‘cause I’m nice to him.” I would let my child know, “I’m sure your are nice. That’s the kind of person you are. But I think it is important for Coach to treat all the kids the same.” If Coach gave my child anything else, I would talk to Coach and unapologetically say that I would prefer he not favor my child especially. If it happened after that, I would remove my child from the team.
This is not an easy topic. I have shared my view and what I did as a parent here. I am grateful to Brooke Galloway for providing us with other fine resources that would be worth your time checking out.
Vermont Network http://www.vtnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/WSB-manual-09.pdf
RAINN (Rape and Incest National Network) https://www.rainn.org/articles/talking-your-kids-about-sexual-assault
Center for Disease Control https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/prevention.html
Stop Sexual Assault in Schools http://stopsexualassaultinschools.org/for-students-families/know-your-rights/
Love is Respect http://www.loveisrespect.org/for-someone-else/help-my-child/
I would love to hear your thoughts or questions on this topic. I do not know that I'll have answers, but Brooke welcomes any questions we do have, so we do have a professional's insight on hand.