By Allison Wedell Schumacher
As a parent, the last thing I want is my child coming to me, teary-eyed and shaking, and telling me that someone has touched her inappropriately or raped her. I worry I would fall apart—maybe not on the outside, but on the inside. It would be horrible.
But here’s what would be even more horrible: Finding out that my child had been sexually abused for days or months or years because she didn’t know how to tell an adult or felt she couldn’t.
Now, talking to her about this stuff is no picnic. I’d kind of rather chew tinfoil, if you know what I mean. But it’s something I have to do to protect her. So, starting when she was two or three, I checked all the boxes. I taught her the proper names for all her private body parts, and I make a point to use them instead of euphemisms whenever the subject comes up. Why? Because sexual predators are more likely to prey on kids who are afraid or embarrassed to talk openly about their bodies.
I taught her that no one is allowed to touch her private body parts except to keep her safe and healthy. I taught her that if she is ever uncomfortable with the way anyone touches her—even if it’s just a hug that lasts too long—she can tell me, her dad, or another trusted adult.
I taught her the difference between secrets and surprises. Surprises—like “We’re getting this gift for Daddy for his birthday, but don’t tell him yet because it’s a surprise!”—are okay. The idea is that the truth will be revealed soon. But we don’t do secrets in our family, and we let everyone know that—even if it’s just a secret about getting ice cream before dinner.
But perhaps most importantly, I taught her that if she ever has something to tell me, I will always believe her, I will never be angry with her, and I will do something about it. And if she tells another adult and they don’t do anything, she needs to keep telling adults until someone does.
These conversations are ongoing. I wouldn’t expect my daughter to be able to do math after just one math lesson; she gets them every day. In the same way, I talk to her regularly (and casually) about touching safety. A great by-product of this is that the more often we have these conversations, the less awkward and uncomfortable they get.
Also, I try to keep the lines of communication open all the time and listen to her—whether she’s babbling about which character she likes best in her latest graphic novel or how she skinned her knee on the playground. I figure that if she doesn’t think she can tell me about the little things, there’s no way she’ll tell me about the big things.
A great way to start these spontaneous conversations about touching safety is with books. The good ones have not only engaging text and pictures for kids, but also a reading guide and additional resources for adults. My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky, for example, is a great resource to get the touching safety conversation started with your early elementary kiddo. (My daughter, upon reading it, pronounced it “a good and important book,” so there you have it.)
The fact is that we can’t wrap our kids in Bubble Wrap and keep them on a tether in the name of protecting them. But we can talk to them and teach them—even when it’s uncomfortable or awkward—about their bodies in ways that will help them stay safe.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.