***********************Guest Post by Emily Plank of Abundant Life Children*******************
Last week, my children and I were out at a coffee shop. My daughter caught the eyes of another patron, and asked me, Mom, is that a girl? I answered that yes, I thought it was a girl. Under her breath, my daughter uttered, She has a vagina. She sits down to pee.
I smiled, knowing that my daughter is sorting out the categories as they pertain to male and female bodies. This learning is crucial as children find a voice to advocate for their own physical needs.
Raising children who are strong self-advocates is one way we help protect them from abuse. While there is no way to guarantee our children’s safety, prevention goes far beyond protecting our children from others we suspect to be dangerous.
- Empowering our children with the knowledge that their bodies deserve respect gives them the courage to demand respect when situations cross a comfortable line.
- Empowering our children with agency over their body helps them develop an internal sense for who can assume control over their bodies. (Hint: without permission – no one!)
- Empowering children to speak up for themselves in public situations grows their courage to stand up for their needs.
1. Body Knowledge = Body Respect. When we know about our bodies, we learn to respect our bodies. We teach this concept as we interact with children’s bodies from birth in several ways.
Terminology. “Genital slang” serves to deflect our own discomfort and ignorance about physical bodies, but using colloquialisms communicates shame and disrespect. Children wonder, why do my genitals need special, silly words? We clam up at the sound of terms that children need to own their physical bodies, but we would do our children a great service to just get over it.
If it helps, practice saying the words over and over. The more practice you get, the less awkward it feels! Everyone now: penis, vulva, scrotum, and vagina.
Function. For preschoolers, body functions comprise the sum total of their humorous arsenal. Nothing gets the giggles going like mention of pee, poop, boogers, or (dare I say it?) gas.
Laughing about a body function should be reserved for children. No doubt, gas is hilarious, but when we laugh at children for the natural processes of their bodies, we can plant seeds of self-questioning and fear. Laughing at our own farts every now and then can model a light-hearted approach towards our bodies or it can undermine appreciation for the complexity of our bodies – it really depends on the age of the children and the circumstances.
While joking can be hazardous, squashing the spontaneous laughter of a group of children over jokes involving body functions does nothing except create a taboo subject that increases in allure. I tend to abide by the rule that jokes are fine as long as they aren’t done at another child’s expense.
Likewise, the way we respond to body functions can communicate honor and respect or shame. Infants’ diapers might be described as “full” rather than “messy” or “strong-smelling” rather than “stinky.” Toilet accidents are simply accidents, handled without shaming and as privately as possible. Language is important, and what we say to children communicates that their body processes are normal, healthy, and worth respecting.
2. A Sense of Agency: Children Control their Bodies. “I am in charge of my body. No one can do anything to my body without asking.” This message is one of the most critical messages for children to internalize during their early years, yet so much of what we do can interrupt this idea.
We model appropriate physical contact with children when we ask for permission before getting into their space.
From infancy, when we need to pick them up to change their diaper, we ask. I see you need a new diaper. Can I pick you up? (wait for a response) Okay. I’m going to pick you up now.
As toddlers, when we need to wipe a runny nose, we ask. I see boogers. Would you like help wiping your nose, or would you like to do it yourself?
When a child is hurt, and we think they might like a hug, we ask. You fell and bumped your knee. Would a hug be helpful?
When our preschool students arrive in the morning, before shaking hands, hi-fiving, or hugging, we ask. It’s so nice to see you this morning. I have a good morning hug I’d like to give you. Would you like to have it?
3. “I can ask for my own ketchup.” Having a voice to speak for themselves is a crucial part of self advocacy. My mom raised my brothers and I to be self-advocates from an early age. One of the ways she did it was through direct teaching in public situations. She tells of times when we needed something small at a restaurant (ketchup, napkins, a drink refill), and she gave us the language and the courage to ask for it ourselves. Or times when we needed to know the location of a book at the library, and she gave us the language to ask the librarian. And still times when we needed to borrow a cup of sugar, and she sent us next door, armed with a measuring cup and the right vocabulary to be successful.
Children need lots of practice talking to strangers. The reality is that strangers are statistically not the problem when it comes to childhood abuse. Success in social interactions comes from a set of specific tools: speaking loudly, making eye contact, and asking for attention before speaking, and children only acquire those tools through practice. Finding small ways to give children the power to talk to adults and get what they need equips them with lifelong skills for self-advocacy.
Consider a child who feels threatened. That child needs to seek an adult ally and get help. Through practice in low-stakes situations, our children will have the tools to manage when the stakes get higher.
At the end of the day, the only person responsible for abusing a child is the abuser. And it would be great, if we lived in a world where all people, of all shapes and sizes, respected each other’s bodies and boundaries. But in the meantime, we can give our children as much power and protection against abuse as we possibly can. To this end, our strongest ally in the quest to protect children from abuse is empowerment, because the skills children learn through these types of interactions apply widely, and are applicable when our kids are out of our immediate view. Fostering skills of self-advocacy in children extends from small daily choices we make as educators and parents, and carries the potential to create true transformation for our children. And just as importantly, when we empower children to protect, honor and respect their own bodies, we are creating a generation of future adults who are more likely to protect, honor and respect the bodies of others. And that’s when the world really does become a safer place.
Emily Plank is a play-enthusiast, expert block-tower-builder, skilled problem-solver, and accomplished storyteller. She loves putting early childhood education research to the test with her crew at Abundant Life Child Development Home and offers her current real-life experience and anecdotes in her writings. Emily serves as a mentor to other child development home providers in her county and spends evenings and weekends training other early childhood educators across the United States through her own original workshops and trainings. An avid writer, Emily blogs for the families of children in her care and the early childhood community at large at abundantlifechildren.com. She lives in Iowa with her husband and three very spirited young children.
Thank you so much to Emily for adding her voice to our collection of posts about prevention abuse! Want to contribute? Please contact us! We would love to add your story.