By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed.
Recently, as I was putting my youngest grandson (two years old) in for a nap, he asked me in all innocence, “Bubby, where did mommy’s penis go?” Totally taken aback, and, fortunately, not dropping him as I put him in the crib, I said, “Let’s ask Mommy and Daddy when they come home.” I wasn’t sure how my daughter or son-in-law would address his question, but I knew I wanted the answer to come from them, his parents.
Maybe it was a cop-out on my part to respond that way, but I was definitely not in my comfort zone. Ironically, just a few days before, my supervisor had emailed me a link to an article on children and sexual abuse. Here were two situations, one personal and one professional, that spoke to a topic that is not always easy to discuss. I know what I would have said to my children thirty-some years ago, but today’s world is certainly different. What would my grandson’s parents choose to tell him? What terminology would they use? What had they already discussed with his five year old brother? Would they wait to revisit the question at another time?
Linking these two situations together made me think about our role as parents. The Talmud tells us that parents have three duties toward their children: To teach them Torah, to teach them a trade, and to teach them to swim.” (Kiddushim 30:b) Teaching our children to swim means helping them learn how to stay afloat, how to live safely, how to make healthy decisions and how to protect themselves. Sadly, in today’s world, it is equally as critical to talk with children about sexual abuse as it is to teach them how to cross the street safely. Yet, for totally understandable reasons, many of us hesitate about broaching the subject of sexual abuse.
If you’ve been hesitant to talk with your children about sexual abuse, here are some suggestions as mentioned in an article by Sandra Kim: “10 Ways to Talk to Your Kids about Sexual Abuse” (Everyday Feminism, February 6, 2014).
- Create a calm and loving environment. Be comfortable. We want children to hear what we’re saying and not respond to the fear or stress they may pick up on in our voices or demeanor. Remember, talking with them, age appropriately, is a way we can show how much we love them.
- Start the conversation as early as two years old. “Children under 12 are most at risk at 4 years old.” While they’re taking a bath might be a natural time to talk with them about what parts of their bodies are private.
- Use the correct names for the parts of their bodies. Should anyone be touching them inappropriately or hurting them, the child needs to be able to accurately describe what is happening.
- When children are young, we don’t want to use more words than they can handle. Use “private parts” as the places where no one should touch them except when a parent is giving them a bath or a doctor/nurse is examining them, for example. As children get older, you can use the words “clean, safe and healthy” as the only times when someone should see or touch the private parts of their bodies. Even then, if the situation appears to be an example of clean, safe or healthy, but is hurting them, they need to say “stop” and then tell someone.
- Encourage your child to be respectful of his/her body and to make decisions based on that respect. Don’t force them to kiss or hug Aunt Mary because she will be upset if she doesn’t “get a hug.” If your child is leery or uncomfortable about what an adult is asking him/her to do, encourage their ability to say “no” and to feel they have permission to do so. Children should be able to trust their gut feeling.
- Make sure your children understand that they should always tell you if someone tells them to keep a secret about something that involves the private parts of their bodies. They should not feel embarrassed and should be reassured that you will always believe what they are saying.
This topic may have created some stress and discomfort, but it’s important. Here is one last rule of thumb: KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING. Revisit the topic at different developmental stages. Make sure your child is comfortable coming to you if they have questions. Each child is different so know your child’s emotional age as well as considering his/her chronological age. Continue to stay calm, be open, and engage your child in a dialogue whenever possible that may help them swim safely to the other shore.
By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed., JCS Prevention Education
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