When I wear my mother-of-nine badge, one question I frequently get is, “If you could change any parenting decision you ever made, what would it be?” (or some version of that question). Until recently, I never had a good answer. I’ve felt pretty good about the big-picture parenting philosophies we’ve employed, and the small details never seemed worth mentioning. But now, the answer is easy.
I would equip my young children with the words they need to tell me if someone ever takes indecent liberties with them. I was a strong proponent, even in this space, of preserving the innocence of children. I still am. Too much information, too soon, robs them of a precious period of life to which every child should lay claim. Childhood is all too short; let them be little.
But we cannot wrap our children in bubble wrap, and even the most protected children are not under our watchful care constantly. Sadly, according to the National Center for the Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. They are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13, and they are likely to be abused by someone known to them. Darkness to Lightreports that a full 20 percent are abused before the age of eight. We cannot wait until they are nearing puberty to give them enough information to reach out for help. Even the most careful mother cannot control for every circumstance. Instead, she needs to give her children the power and place to tell a horrible tale if that tale needs to be told.
I don’t hesitate now to tell young parents—especially parents who believe in protecting childhood—that children must be intentionally taught how to recognize situations which are wholly inappropriate and even dangerous. They need to know the warning flags. They need the words to tell if something goes wrong, and then to be assured of a safe place to use those words.
These are uncomfortable conversations. No parent wants to look into the eyes of a precious child and tell them that someone might hurt them. No one ever wants to introduce doubt into the life a child that he or she might not be altogether safe in every familiar location. The truth is that the more protected a child is, the more vulnerable she might be. We have to say some hard things, and we have to say them earlier than most of us would have ever considered necessary.
It is not necessary to give a very young child too much information. They don’t need to know all there is to know about sex in order to recognize molestation. We can tell them that they should keep their private parts private and introduce the idea of modesty. Then, we need to go a little further. We need to gently teach them that people might put them in a situation where they ask (or force) them to relinquish that privacy over their “private parts.”
Children need to understand that those times—and the feelings of fear or anger or discomfort or awkwardness—are red flags; they are a clarion call to get help. We need our children to know to both trust their instincts when something seems amiss, and to override their fear if someone threatens them not to tell. Remember, a very young child might not even recognize the evil of what is happening as it happens. It’s important to teach them that no one—no matter how known or trusted--should touch what is private, and no one should ever threaten them to keep a secret.
Finally, they need to know that if something happens and their private parts are no longer private, it’s not their fault. They need to understand that the hurt they feel requires a trusted adult to help them heal, just as if the pain were a medical emergency.
As difficult as it is to have these conversations, children deserve to be assured ahead of time that the adults in their lives will take care of them if something happens. They need to know that sometimes bad things happen to good kids, and that good guys will always, always hear the secret and help them from the dark place of hiding it to a better place where they are comforted.
Don’t know how to get started? I highly recommend I Said No!: A kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts privateby Zack and Kimberly King. God bless you as you do this hard thing for your kids.