This topic has been on my heart since last October. I'm sharing it here to share what I'm learning and to account for my time. After asking a popular mom blog to feature a post or podcast on this topic, I was asked to write this up. I've been looking for ways to share this information far and wide within my family and communities, so this is just one more avenue. (I apologize for the formatting, I don't have the time to make it flow all snazzy like I want to so there's many run-on paragraphs.)
Teaching Our Children Personal Safety
Teaching Our Children Personal Safety
I grew up as the oldest of ten children from a strong LDS family in a conservative, family-friendly eastern Washington community. Despite my idyllic childhood, hard things affected people I love. When I was in fifth grade, a good friend’s older brother was incarcerated for sexually abusing two little neighbor kids he babysat. As the years have gone by, I have become aware of too many family members and friends who have also been affected by child abuse within their families. The startling common reality was that the abuse was done by a member(s) of their family or within their family’s circle. We must remove "Stranger Danger" from our conversations because kids don't understand it and adults don't practice it. Sadly, no community, religious or otherwise, is immune from these realities.
Did you know?
- As many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18?
- Approximately three quarters of reported cases are committed by family members of individuals who are considered part of the victim’s “circle of trust.”
- Twenty three percent of perpetrators were under age 18.
The four greatest challenges to children’s safety are abduction, bullying, child abuse and neglect, and sexual assault. Did you know that 90% of students in grades 4-8 reported being threatened or bullied in school? And that 85% reported no intervention by adults or peers? Further, the statistics around pornography’s impact on brain development in youth, brain chemistry, relationships, and communities are also quite sobering and have directly impacted my life. More than half of boys and nearly a third of girls see their first pornographic images before they turn 13. Addictions have begun by this age too.
These statistics have been a reality in my life. After reading Elizabeth Smart’s memoir of her abduction from her home at the age of 14, I knew I needed to do something. I have 4 children and one on the way. I was recently given the responsibility of 120 children in my church ages 18 months to 11 years old with a staff of 40 teachers and midweek activity leaders. We are part of an overseas US military community and my children attend an international school. My community’s global nomad children stand at a higher risk because they must integrate into new communities every one to five years due to their parents’ work.
How could I empower these children, their parents and their leaders to face the challenges and realities of today with confidence in their abilities to protect themselves and their families?
How can we create a family culture that loves, guides, and supports a struggling child or adult who may be the bully or perpetrator? Or how can we be a positive, supportive influence on a troubled child or family that comes into our lives while keeping our eyes open to their struggles?
Luckily we live in a day when the resources and liberties to arm ourselves with information, strategies and skills are readily available. I began scouring resources online with three questions guiding me and here are some of the answers I found:
What do my children need to know?
- I am special and no one has the right to trick or hurt me.
- Everyone else is also special and I do not have the right to hurt or trick anyone else. But if I am uncomfortable or being hurt, I can do whatever it takes to get away.
- I should tell someone until they help me. It is not my fault they hurt me.
These three guiding principles coincide with teaching our children that we as their parents love them no matter what. Children need to have a basic understanding of how to keep their bodies safe as well as safety in the home, going to and from or at school, being out and about, and being online.
When do they need to know it?
NOW! Parents automatically begin teaching their children about their bodies and their surroundings as babies when we bath them or ask them to hold our hands as toddlers when we cross the street. Keep those conversations going as they grow. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has great age appropriate conversation starters on their website Take25.org. Every parent should read the fact sheet provided by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network about what every child as early as three should begin to understand about keeping their body safe. (See link below.)
How do I teach personal safety?
- Be a safe confidante and understand how we as parents message this. When a child comes running to us crying, do we say, “What happened . . . oh you hit him so you probably deserved it.” Or do we seek to calm their wounded heart by saying, “I’m so sorry you are hurt/upset. What can we do right now to make things better? What could you/we do different in the future so this doesn’t happen again?” Rather than blame and shame our children for being in the wrong place and perhaps with the wrong temperament, we should seek to communicate empathy first and then mentor them into finding strategies and attributes they want in themselves. In communicating this way, we prove ourselves safe to communicate with as life’s choices and challenges get bigger. Our children will also be watching to see how we comment on other people’s choices and mistakes? Do we routinely judge others or do we reserve judgment with grace for what we do and don’t know, asking what we can learn from the situation?
- Be deliberate in making teaching moments a part of everyday life. As you go about your routine moments of the day getting ready, driving together, out on walks, cooking together, doing chores side by side, at bedtime and on outings – play “what if” and role play scenarios to get a conversation going. Hold special family meetings on subjects that need more in depth focus and perhaps ask older children to present on the topic so you know they understand it. Always be sure to let them know there are many adults around them who would drop everything to help a child asking for help and protect them. A good rule of thumb for my little ones is go to a mom with a child if you can’t find Mom or Dad. Reinforce family rules and guidelines as often as possible when encountering times of the day your children may not be right by your side – entering a store, riding the bus, playing in the neighborhood or park, play dates and sleepovers, community events or activities and so forth. Watch media together and discuss what you see. Ask family members how they felt and what messages were conveyed about relationships and personal character. What made it good or bad? Do we want this in our life, does it help us become who we want to be? Was it a good use of our time?
- Be their most regular, trusted source of information. From the time they are born you can make them aware of their bodies during bath time and getting dressed. Celebrate what our bodies can do and who is allowed to see and touch the parts of their body covered by swimsuits. Share children’s books to explore physical development and relationships. Two of me and my children’s favorite books for kids under ten are “Who Has What” and “It’s So Amazing,” both by Robie H. Harris. They are well illustrated to facilitate good discussions, provide accurate information, and do not push any particular social agenda. Regularly ask about your children’s day, their friendships, and their friend’s lives. Decide on an incremental approach or designate a special occasion for the puberty and sex talk and subsequent topics. Decide if you will provide them with a sexual education beyond the basics and how you will prepare them for a healthy transition into sexual activity, married or otherwise. If not you, whom do you trust to do so? Look into your children’s school’s biology and sexuality curriculum from 5th grade on up so you will be ready to discuss what they’ve learned. This will also enable you as the parent to share your values which may not have been part of the curriculum or peer interactions.
- Reinforce that life is a lifelong learning process and that learning to “fail well” is key to becoming who they want to be. Whether our child becomes a victim, perpetrator, or a friend of someone who is - they need this understanding as do we as parents! Utilize role models in biographies and stories who exemplify resilience, perseverance, and effort. Focus praise of children on their demonstration of strong effort and determination rather than on their performance outcome. For instance, when a child comes home with a spelling test score of 5/10, say, “Tell me how you came up with those spellings” so they can demonstrate the strategies they used, how they approached the challenge, and then help them build new strategies for success. Characteristics of one that fails well are these: They acknowledge the failure; take responsibility for their own actions; they work out what was done wrong and make changes; and have another go. Characteristics of failing badly are: blaming someone, something, or the system; pretending they never get or do anything wrong; adding drama to failures to avoid dealing with them; and avoiding any activity that could possibly result in failure.
- Complete a Child ID kit complete with fingerprints and DNA sample. (See Take25.org)
- If you are a smartphone user, download the free app “FBI Child ID.” Create and easily update a profile and picture of each family member, spouse included, that can be used when a child is lost in a store or goes missing and needs an Amber Alert blasted. Having all this information in one place simplifies a chaotic and anxious situation.
- Explore the Take25.org website for safety tips and age appropriate conversation starters.
- Every parent should read the following fact sheet for understanding and teaching body safety to our children. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/caring/ChildSexualAbuseFactSheet.pdf
- Every parent should read why the term "Stranger Danger" is not a helpful tool in teaching kids about safety. http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/PDF10A.pdf
- Netsmartz.org is a great resource for children, youth and parents to learn about how to stay safe online and what to do when you encounter unsavory things.
- Fightthenewdrug.org is a savvy site for youth and adults about pornography that promotes a rather empowering outlook on the problems and what can be done.
- Radkids.org is a children’s personal safety program that can be brought to communities and has some helpful statistics and resources that show how teaching our kids empowers better outcomes when children encounter difficult or scary situations.