I have spent much of my career working with both sexual abusers and victims of sexual abuse, so it is not surprising that this topic is in the forefront of my mind both as a psychologist and as a parent of young children. While my mind used to be filled with statistics and numbers and facts, it has now boiled down to one undeniable truth. During their lifetime, too many of our children will be victims of sexual abuse and too many of our children will become abusers. So many times I hear, “How does this happen?” “Why does this happen?” and “How can I keep it from happening in my family?”
We are all searching for the easy fix. The perfect “talk,” the best “class,” the most effective “prevention program.” We wonder if and when schools should offer sex education and we debate the effectiveness of “stranger danger” versus “just say no” types of interventions. I hear my friends and clients and family members wonder when we should have “the talk” with our children, and then we agonize over what we will say and how we will say it. Even my husband and I have discussed when we would start talking to our boys about sex.
But I can’t help but think that all this is missing the boat. What we don’t realize is that we are already teaching our children powerful messages about sex, their bodies, their ability to have boundaries and their ability to make healthy sexual decisions. When did we start giving these messages? Oh…about the time they were born. What we don’t realize is that the things we teach our children about sex without actually talking about sex is way more important than the five- or ten-minute conversation that we agonize over. The messages we give and reinforce about their bodies and other people’s bodies and how those bodies interact are way more salient than any sex education class.
Of course I am not minimizing the importance of formal sexual education. I just don’t think that it does much in terms of our goal of raising sexually resilient children. Sexually resilient children are children who have the ability to know and verbalize their boundaries. They feel comfortable talking about their body and concerns they have with at least one person. They trust that their parent (or other caretaker) will support them in saying no to unwanted sexual advances. They respect the bodies of other people, as much as they expect other people to respect their bodies. As parents, we think, “Of course I am teaching my children all these things.” But it is the unstated messages that we give without realizing it that begin to chip away at a child’s personal power. Consider the following:
Accidental message #1: Certain parts of your body are shameful and we give them special names. Using nicknames, no matter how common, gives subtle messages about our bodies. Knowledge is power. Body parts and functions are important, crucial parts of our lives and there is no reason to dumb it down or in any way infantilize them. We don’t make up silly nicknames for our nose, or our ears or our fingers. Why do we do it for our penises and vaginas? The message is that talking about these body parts is embarrassing or somehow wrong.
Healthy message #1: All body parts are created equal. All body parts deserve respect. Use accurate names for body parts. Talk about children’s bodies in an open, respectful and honest manner. Simple, but there isn’t much more to say about this.
Accidental message #2: You don’t really have the right to say no to your elders, especially family members. No parent would ever actively try to give this message, especially with regard to sex. But when families set up the expectation that we do what our elders tell us to do, it makes it pretty hard for children to raise their voice in scary or threatening situations. It is important to remember that most children are abused by someone they know. A family member, close friend, coach, teacher, etc. Saying no should always be an option.
Healthy message #2: “No” is a powerful and useful word! This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite passages from a book:
“To hold the word no in my mouth like a gold coin, something valued, something possible. To teach the no to our daughters [and sons]. To value their no more than their compliant yes. To celebrate no. To grasp the word no in your fist and refuse to give it up. To support the boy who says no to violence, the girl who will not be violated, the woman who says no, no, no, I will not. To love the no, to cherish the no, which is so often our first word. No—the means to transformation.” –Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance.
Allowing our children to say no, even to us as parents, is not a sign of defeat, but a sign of a healthy, resilient child. Supporting them in using “no” in a respectful and healthy manner allows our children to be powerful and strong.
Accidental message #3: You can make me (your parent) happy by allowing your personal space to be invaded. How many times do we catch ourselves encouraging our children to give a hug or a kiss or even a smile or a wave as they hide behind our legs? Why is it so important for us that our children kiss Aunt Mildred goodbye? Why is it so important for us that they wave and say hi to the stranger in the grocery store? When we say things like, “Why don’t you want to kiss your grandpa? Go on, give your grandpa a hug. There you go! Good job! That was so nice,” we are sending a direct message that this pleases us.
Healthy message #3: Hugging and kissing and saying hello should be something you do with people because it feels good for you at the time. Not something that you do to make me (your parent) or Aunt Mildred or the grocery store clerk happy. Instead of pressuring them to conform and perform, we should be helping them figure out what they are comfortable with. “Well, Grandpa, Sammy doesn’t feel like giving kisses today. Sammy, is there another way you would like to say goodbye to Grandpa?”
Accidental message #4: I (your parent) will not support you when you try to communicate that you’re uncomfortable. Similar to Message #3, when our child is communicating with us that they do not want their cheeks pinched or their forehead kissed or their body hugged, and we say, “Oh, it’s just your Aunt Mildred, you’re okay,” we are sending them a direct message that we will not support them when they come to us with what they feel are body violations.
Healthy message #4: I (your parent) validate and support what you are telling me, and I will help you if you need help. When they are hiding behind our legs, looking at us with pleading eyes to protect them from the pinching fingers of Aunt Mildred, we need to support them. It’s our job as parents to listen and support and validate. “Oops, Aunt Mildred, I can tell that Janie doesn’t want you to pinch her cheeks today!” We need to model boundary setting for our children if we are going to expect that they will someday be able to do it for themselves.
Accidental message #5: Your instincts about your body space are not valid. From an early age, children are experimenting with their bodies and how those bodies interact in space and time with the bodies of other people. They are learning what feels good, what doesn’t feel good, what kinds of physical connections with others they like and don’t like. As they do this, they are checking in with us to help them define this very complicated pattern. Things like knowing when you have to pee, feeling scared or safe in social interactions, or knowing when a game is no longer fun (tickling is a big one here) are all body space and sensation issues that children have to figure out. Parents often find themselves saying things like, “I know you have to pee.” Or, “Don’t be afraid, just go down the slide.” Or continuing to tickle despite a child’s cry to stop! While each of these may be a small drop in the bucket, those drops add up. When we give message after message that negates a child’s experience of their body, it is harder for them to trust themselves and their instincts.
Healthy message #5: I support you in learning about your body and space and trust your instincts. This is a hard one for parents, and I can already hear the “yeah, buts” in my own head. (What if they are about to fall? What if they don’t go pee and they have an accident….) Ensuring safety is important, but, in essence, children have to fall to learn balance, they have to have accidents to learn bowel control, they have to learn to identify the line between fun and uncomfortable and figure out how to make their voice heard to make uncomfortable things stop. And we have to patiently support them in figuring this out. You may be asking what this has to do with sexual abuse prevention. Everything! Quite often, sexual abuse happens over a long period of time, with the offender blurring the boundaries between fun and uncomfortable. Resilient kids can listen to their inner instincts about their bodies and know when something isn’t right. They don’t have to depend on someone to tell them.
Accidental message #6: I (your parent) get uncomfortable or embarrassed about your sexuality. We get embarrassed when we find our toddler exploring their body in the bathtub. We blush and stutter and hem and haw when they start asking us questions. We start sending the message, “That is private and you only do that in your bedroom by yourself.” While this message isn’t necessarily wrong with respect to certain sexual behaviors, it is powerful when the message extends to all things related to body parts, sex or even talking about body parts or sex. It isn’t enough to tell them that they should come to us if someone touches them. They won’t believe that we can handle it if it came to that.
Healthy Message #6: We can handle your questions and concerns and our heads won’t explode. We have to be able to answer questions about penises without blushing or coughing or choking on our coffee. We have to be able to say the word masturbation without making a face that looks like someone just vomited in our Cheerios.
Raising sexually resilient kids means that our children will feel empowered to respect their own bodies, make their own choices, communicate their own boundaries and feel comfortable to come to us when those boundaries have been violated. In order to get there, we have to build a foundation for our kids to stand on. It isn’t about “the talk” or “the class” or the “prevention program.” It’s about what we communicate to our children every day without realizing it. It’s about cultivating their own power and changing the way our families and our culture value children’s boundaries. The “sex talk” will happen anyway, but maybe, if we have given them this foundation, it will actually mean something.
Want to have further discussion about raising sexually resilient children? Want a workshop or discussion group or lecture for a group of parents? Contact Darci to set it up!