After educating thousands of parents about their children’s body safety, I thought I’d share your top ten questions—the questions I hear most often in my workshops and around town.
I also want to let you know that in addition to my Parenting Safe Children workshop, I'm available for private consultations when you have a concern about a child, a situation, or a person, and need guidance on how to speak up, intervene, or report it.
Here’s to keeping the kids in our communities safe!
1. At what age should I begin talking with my kids about body safety?
It’s never too early to start talking with children about body safety, as long as the information is age-appropriate and presented without fear. For example, when you’re bathing your 18-month-old daughter, you might say:
“Mommy is cleaning your back and your legs. Now Mommy is helping you clean your vagina. Your vagina is your private part. You’re the boss of your body.”
As the child gets a little older, you would add to the body-safety rule:
“Your vagina is one of your private parts and no one is allowed to touch your private parts unless you need help cleaning them, or your private parts are hurt or sick and the doctor needs to examine them. And Mommy will always be in the room if the doctor has to look at your private parts.”
In the words of a two-year-old child, whose mother has been teaching body-safety concepts for over a year, “My vagina is mine!”
2. When should my kids stop bathing with each other and when should I (we) stop being naked in front of them? It is common for children to begin showing modesty around age seven or eight, but it could be as early as five, or even either sideof ten. Your child may seek greater privacy when he or she gets dressed or uses the bathroom, and your child may tell you that he or she does not want to bathe with siblings any longer.
If your child doesn’t express modesty through privacy requests, you might bring up the topic through teachable moments. For example, when siblings are bathing together, you might say:
“If at some point either of you prefer to bathe without your sister (or brother),
that’s perfectly fine because in our home we respect each other’s privacy.”
I want to acknowledge that separate bathing, with two or more kids, means more work for parents, so you might consider other ways to reinforce privacy.
A word about nudity: Depending on your values, you may or may not be comfortable with nudity in your home. If you do allow nudity, be sure to reinforce body-safety rules and consider introducing boundaries if any family member expresses discomfort.
3. Do I have to ask permission every time I kiss or hug my child?
In Parenting Safe Children and my book, Off Limits, I discuss the importance of allowing children to choose if, when, and with whom they show affection. Why is it important to give children this choice?
It turns out that a child who can say “No” to a loved one in a safe environment has a better chance of saying “No” when approached in an unsafe situation. For this reason, I recommend asking children before showing affection. For instance, you might ask, “May I have a kiss?” or “Do you want a kiss?”
When you ask and a child grants or denies permission, you are empowering that child to be the boss of his or her body. If nothing else, read your child’s body language. If your child resists your hug, then back off and respect his or her wishes. You can also turn resistance into a teachable moment by saying:
“If you don't want a hug or a kiss, that's okay. And if you do want one, just let me know.”
A young child typically will rush over and give you a hug because he or she feels empowered!
I know how natural it is for parents and grandparents to want to shower their children and grandchildren with hugs and kisses. But giving a child a choice about physical affection is a powerful prevention tool. If you’re having trouble bringing a family member on board with this body-safety rule, please share this newsletter and invite that individual onto your prevention team.
4. What if I teach my seven year old about sex and he/she tells friends about it? Of course kids are going to talk about sex with their friends! It’s fascinating, right? I recommend being proactive by letting your children’s caregivers know that you have discussed sex. If your child has a best friend, you might even tell his or her parents. In the same conversation, reinforce your child’s body-safety rules.
Remember not to say to your child, “Don’t tell your friends about sex.” You will contradict your “no secrets” rule, and kids will tell their friends anyway. If it’s really a concern to you, you might say:
“Many times parents like to be the ones to teach their children about sex, so let’s let Liam’s parent(s) tell him when they’re ready.”
5. How do I know if my toddler is safe? She can’t tell me if someone has broken a body-safety rule?
The fewer caregivers you have, the lower the risk of abuse. If you don’t have the option of limiting caregivers, be sure to talk with (“screen”) every caregiver about your child’s body-safety rules and invite him or her onto your prevention team.
6. How do I speak with children about masturbation?
Like any other conversation with children, talk about masturbation candidly and with accurate and age-appropriate information. And perhaps most importantly, without shame. As you well know, every day children present teachable moments for parents to introduce and reinforce concepts and values. For instance, if your child has her hands in her pants in public, you might say:
“It’s okay to touch your vagina, but that’s something you do when you’re by yourself. Your vagina is a private part of your body so you touch it when you have privacy.”
And then you would redirect your child’s attention to something else. It’s even okay to acknowledge pleasure. Consider this exchange between a Dad and his 4-year-old son:
“Dad, look! It’s so big and purple!”
“Yes, that’s because when you touch your penis it feels good.”
Fast forward to fifth or sixth grade, and now age-appropriate discussions might include nocturnal emissions and an explanation that an orgasm is a pleasurable feeling that comes from your penis being touched—and that it’s normal and okay.
Top 10 Questions Continued... I know talking about masturbation may be uncomfortable, but just like you nurture your child’s emotional, spiritual, and physical development, it’s important to nurture your child’s sexual development. Why? It’s important because sexual offenders look for children who are uninformed about sex so the offender can teach the child. The more you’re available to your child with information about sex and sexuality, the more likely your children will go to you for information, and the less vulnerable your child is to sexual abuse.
7. If I teach my kids about sex in primary school, isn’t it going to make them curious to try sex?
Contrary to popular belief, talking to kids about sex does not make them go out and have sex. Not talking about sex and sexuality, however, does contribute to misinformation, confusion, shame, and body image issues. And most pertinent to this discussion, talking with children about sex and sexuality in an age-appropriate way empowers children and teens around body safety. It lets them know that no topic is off limits, which makes kids more likely to speak with you about both safe and unsafe situations.
You can certainly reinforce your values while having conversations about sex. For instance:
“I’m always here to answer your questions about sex because I don’t want you to be confused or get misinformation from other kids. In our family we value …”
8. Are there ever children who were not abused themselves, but who go on to sexually abuse other children?
Yes, but most children who act out sexually toward other children have experienced some prior trauma – sexual, physical, emotional, or severe neglect. Remember though, not all children who are victims of sexual abuse will sexually abuse others; in fact, most do not. But of the children who do sexually abuse others, most were traumatized in some way.
9. What happens when you make a report of child abuse to Child Protective Services (CPS)?
Child Protective Services (sometimes called Department of Children & Family Services) is a government agency and its mission is to keep kids safe. When you report actual or suspected abuse to CPS, a screening team reviews the reported incident and determines, based on the state’s criteria, whether to investigate it.
If the incident does not meet the state’s criteria, the report is kept on file anyway, which is why it’s important to report suspected abuse. If the incident does meet the state’s criteria, the child is interviewed by a qualified interviewer who determines if the child is in imminent danger and what action should be taken. When the alleged offender is not a family member, law enforcement gets involved; otherwise, social services remains involved.
Remember, the purpose of making a report is to protect the child. CPS wants to keep families together.
10. Do sex offenders “groom” children in front of other people?
Yes, sometimes offenders will groom right in front of you because they want to desensitize you to grooming behavior. Consider this situation: A neighbor spends more time playing with children than adults, and is seen pulling up a child’s shirt and tickling a child’s belly. By engaging in this seemingly playful behavior in front of you, the offender wants you to think, “Gosh, he’s so great with kids.”
I am not suggesting that all adults who play with and tickle kids are offenders, but rather that it’s important to learn the signs of grooming, which I discuss in chapters two through five of Off Limits.