Call me paranoid, but I’m scared.
Maybe I’ve watched too much “Law & Order SVU,” but my twins were born four years ago, and I’ve worried about pedophiles and sexual predators ever since. Recent events in the news have made this fear even more pronounced. A group of teenagers sexually assaulted a local girl who was out for a walk WITH HER FATHER. Amber alerts are constantly coming over my Facebook feed.
I hear news reports about certain teachers and professors having inappropriate sexual relationships with students. And a pro-rape blogger arranged for an “International Tribal Meetup Day” with rallies for “men’s rights” in cities all over the world. This blogger has posted things like “I propose that we make the violent taking of a woman not punishable by law when done off public grounds.” While these meet ups were ultimately canceled in response to a worldwide uproar, it frightens me to see how many followers this blogger has.
To try and keep my children safe, I talk openly with them about their bodies and use the proper terms for all body parts, including penis and vagina. I want them to feel comfortable coming to me with questions or concerns about their body, no matter what part is involved. If heaven-forbid they were to become a victim of a sexual predator, I would want them to have the language to tell me (and the police) what happened, and to feel safe doing so. Also, a pedophile or sexual predator is unlikely to use the correct terms – the use of a nickname for private parts helps predators blur sexual boundaries. If a child uses the correct terminology with a potential predator, this puts the predator on notice that they might be discovered because the child can talk about what’s going on.
I also try to teach them that they have the right to avoid unwanted touching by giving them as much bodily autonomy as possible. You must be polite and say hello to Mommy’s friend, but you don’t have to hug or kiss them unless you want to. I also never tickle without permission. When you want to be tickled, it can be great fun. But when you don’t want to be tickled, it’s terrible. One of my son’s favorite books is “Tickle Time” by Sandra Boynton, but we only read it when he asks for it. And throughout the book, I check in to make sure he wants to keep reading (and keep being tickled). Often he says yes, and hilarious giggles follow. But sometimes he’ll say “I’m done,” and we’ll stop immediately and move on to a different activity.
I want to teach them that they have control over their bodies. However, sometimes it’s confusing. You must have a bath whether you want to or not. You must get cleaned well after using the bathroom. You must allow me to take your temperature when you’re sick (I find the ear thermometers to be random number generators). And you must allow the doctor to examine you. So when the doctor or I must touch their bodies against their will, I explain to them what will happen and why. I don’t know if they understand what I’m trying to do, but hopefully, the message is getting through that their bodies are their own, and unless it’s for medical or health reasons, that they have a right to say no to unwanted touching.
Clearly, I’ve been worried about my children being victims for a long time. However, in recent days, I’ve gained another fear—I worry about my children becoming perpetrators. Don’t get me wrong, my children are about as kind, caring, and concerned for others as 4-year-olds can be. However, an influential peer or apparent authority figure can make kind, caring people change.
Heck, I’ve been there. When I was about 8 years old, a friend convinced me that purposely missing the bus home after school would be a fun thing to do. Though I was a very well behaved kid normally, I followed my friend (I wonder if she’ll recognize herself in this story) and we missed the bus together. Turns out it wasn’t such a good idea after all. I remember my parents being very upset that I missed the bus on purpose, but they were even more upset that I let a friend convince me to do something that I knew wasn’t right.
An influential figure can make people think and do things much more harmful than just missing a bus. I assume that the followers of the pro-rape blogger and the teens who raped the girl walking with her father were kind, caring 4-year-olds at some point. And now they have been persuaded to believe that women’s bodies are theirs for the taking.
How can I help my children protect themselves from people who’d warp their thinking? How can I teach my children that everyone else deserves bodily autonomy too?
My daughter has a “BFF” in her pre-school class. Each morning when we come in, the BFF comes over for a big hug. Sometimes the hug is happily accepted and returned, but sometimes, my daughter squirms and tries to get away. This morning was one of those mornings, and with all of this on my mind I said “Honey, if she is telling you not to touch her, then please don’t touch her.”
While my son loves being tickled, my daughter doesn’t. My son will sometimes try to tickle his sister, and she’ll scream and try to get away. Now I’ve started telling my son in the moment, “If she is telling you to stop tickling, then please stop tickling. She has control over her body, just like you have control over yours.”
I hope that by teaching my children respect for their own bodies, they’ll be able to keep themselves safe; by teaching them respect for others’ bodies, they’ll keep others safe and not get persuaded to bully or assault anyone, sexually or otherwise.
I am doing my best to give my children the tools they need to protect themselves and others, and I just pray they never ever need to use them.