I love the start of the school year and shopping with my kids for back-to-school supplies. I get as much joy as they do buying simple things like new pencils, paper, backpacks, and lunch bags. It is an exciting time full of new classrooms, friends, and teachers. The best part is seeing the first day of school pictures my friends post of their kids on social media. Their shiny new shoes and clean clothes that probably didn’t make it till the end of the day without scuff marks.
This photo is my daughter, Jaiden, on her first day of third grade. It is a bittersweet picture because while it’s one of my favorite pictures of her, it was also the picture used to show the jury in the molestation case against her teacher.
Two weeks into third grade, Jaiden was molested by her teacher. I taught her from the time she could form sentences to speak up if anyone had touched her inappropriately. Thankfully she did just that. Unfortunately, the many victims that came before her were not taught to speak up, which resulted in the teacher molesting students for seven years before getting caught.
I have been teaching child sexual abuse prevention for the last ten years and what I find most disturbing is that parents and schools would rather not discuss the topic because it makes them uncomfortable. In the book, The Socially Skilled Child Molester, author, and psychologist Carla van Dam, says child predators deliberately target families and organizations that are too uncomfortable, too polite, or too shy to discuss inappropriate behavior or have not been trained in child sexual abuse prevention.
Having that critical discussion with your son or daughter should be the number one tradition on your back-to-school list every year. Make it a part of your annual traditions just like shopping and pictures. The discussion should evolve as your kids age to include age appropriate information. The purpose is not to instill fear or make your kids feel like they can’t trust anybody, but to empower them to speak up when something happens. Knowledge is power and educating your kids makes them able to discern what behavior is worth trusting and what isn’t.
Before you have the discussion with your kids, do your own homework on the topic and be sure you are not relying on myths. While stranger danger is real, 90 percent of victims are molested by someone they know and trust. Predators are very good at their job of being the favorite teacher, fun coach, helpful neighbor or friend’s older sibling.
Given how common it is for the offender to be a known and trusted individual, it’s imperative to focus on behaviors and boundary setting. Here are three key areas to cover:
1. Teach your kids how to identify their “gut” instincts, trust them, and have the courage to act on them. Start by using examples of scary things such as rattle snakes, animals with sharp claws, or fear of heights. Explain that uncomfortable feeling they get when they look over a cliff or see a scary animal is their body’s way of telling them they are not safe.
2. Establish body autonomy and consent. Your child should feel confident that they are in charge of their own body. Letting kids choose their own clothes and hairstyles is an easy way to empower your kids to feel they are in control and will give you one less battle to fight. Do not force your kid to hug or kiss anyone including relatives and teach them to ask others before hugging and kissing them.
3. Explain inappropriate touching and boundaries. Always use the anatomically correct names for all body parts. Give very specific examples of what is allowed and what is not allowed. When something happens that makes them uncomfortable they should remove themselves from the situation and tell a trusted adult.
No child is safe from the vulnerability of being preyed upon. We can’t be there all the time to protect them. Help them learn how to protect themselves. Empowering your kids with the knowledge to set boundaries, speak up when they are crossed, and know they are in control of their bodies are valuable lessons they will use the rest of their lives. This is what I did for my daughter, Jaiden, and we are both forever grateful I made the effort.