My middle son told me something the other night that made my stomach twist into a painful knot. He told me that his preschool teacher wasn’t very nice to him, but he hadn’t told me about it before because he knew that I liked her.
This may seem like a little thing. But, it isn’t to me. Until that moment I had been sure that my kids trusted me enough to tell me about the things that are important to them, the things that they are worried about. The fact that he’d gone a whole year holding back his feelings really frightened me.
I asked him a million questions after that. What had she done to make him not like her? Did she mistreat him in any way? Make him feel uncomfortable? Unimportant?
His answers made me feel a little better. He told me that she was sometimes short with the kids, and that she didn’t have much patience for laggers. Most likely she was a busy teacher with too many kids to tend to.
But, what if it had been something bigger? What if she, or someone else, had hurt him in a serious way? Would he have told me then?
When I was 3 or 4 we had some family friends stay with us. While the adults were busy talking, the teenage boy took me into the bathroom and tried to get me to show him my genitals and touch his. I was scared and confused and, as soon as I could get out, I ran to my mom who immediately talked to his mother and sent them away.
The details of that night are hazy to me. I don’t remember what exactly happened in that bathroom. What I do remember is being absolutely sure that my mom loved me so much that she would take care of things, even if the person who tried to hurt me was someone who she cared about. My trust in her turned what could have been a horrible situation into a fairly minor incident in my childhood.
Over the last few years I have heard stories of sexual abuse that have torn out my heart. In every single case the aggressor has been someone who the child knows. And every time the parents have done the best they could to make things right. But, it still happens. Over and over it happens.
At school the kids learn not to get into the cars of strangers and never to talk to people they don’t know. But, the truth is that the people who most often hurt our kids are the ones that they do know. Teachers, uncles, cousins, coaches. The people we trust. The people we love. Over 80% of the time.
Just typing that brings tears to my eyes. I don’t want to have to teach my kids not to trust the people who they love. I don’t want them to live in a world where they have to question every hug, every lingering touch. I don’t want them to be afraid to be open, loving, caring human beings.
What I do want is for them to trust me enough to tell me any time they feel uncomfortable, no matter who, no matter why, no matter what.
I had a long talk with my son that night. I told him about what happened to me when I was a kid and about how my mom handled it. I told him that there is not one person in this world who I love more than I love him. I told him that he should tell me any time he doesn’t feel comfortable with someone, no matter who they are, no matter how much I care about them.
The conversation made him uncomfortable. He squirmed in his seat and got teary a few times.
It is hard to talk about sexual abuse. Really, really hard. But we HAVE to do it.
And when we do talk about it, we can’t just make it about “bad guys” and “strangers” because, as convenient as it would be to put people in boxes like that, the reality is that good and bad will spill over every single one of the lines and boxes and labels we create.
Talk to your kids about sexual abuse . Even if it makes them uncomfortable. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Tell them to go into this world with open arms, to love and laugh and trust. Tell them that there are good people in this world, people who will teach them things and guide them and help them to grow. Tell them that you trust their teachers, their rabbis, their aunts and uncles and coaches.
But also tell your kids that you trust them more. That you love them more. That if it’s your best friend or your kindest neighbor or your closest cousin, nobody, NOBODY, should ever hurt them.
And if they do, you’ll take care of it.