August 17, 2012

Whose Responsibility Is It To Teach Our Children … About Sexual Abuse Prevention

by

Sexual Assault Education

Whether you homeschool or send your child(ren) to a public or private school, at some point your children will learn what to do in case of a fire, how to be safe around water, who to talk to if they’re being bullied. Depending on where you live there also may be tornado, earthquake, or hurricane safety talks. And all of these will be discussed at different levels beginning at a very young age.

I feel confident in saying that NO PARENT ever actively goes about teaching their toddler about sexual abuse or how to “prevent” it. Even if you are a survivor of child sexual assault, you’re not going to think “Hey, I should tell my 4-year old what to do in case of sexual assault.”. Who in their right mind thinks that way? Maybe there are people who do, but I know that it wasn’t something I thought about. I’m pretty sure it’s not something you thought about either.

Here’s the thing, though. I did teach BabyGirl the parts of her body. Just like I taught her colors and cloud formations and fruits and shapes. We all have a body and I thought it’s important for a little girl to know what the parts you can see are called. I gave them real names. The same names that if she went to the doctor and he asked her if her body hurt somewhere she could tell him.

But how did I teach BabyGirl to tell me if someone touched her body? How did I teach a 4 year old that if someone touched her that she should tell me. Immediately. Without worry that she’ll get in trouble. Without concern that if she was told she’d get in trouble that they’re lying. And knowing that I would protect her.

I just did. At 4, my job is to protect her. She’s not old enough to solve these issues herself. And while as kids grow up we need to teach them how to deal with certain situations such as a fire or medical emergency, we can only empower them so much when it comes to their body. Just like a child may be able to escape a burning building, knowing where to meet is equally as important.

There is a lot of focus on bullying and it’s prevention and reporting. But when it comes to teaching about sexual assault, the silence has a deafening hum. Statistics show that 15% of children under the age of 12 have been sexually assaulted or raped¹ and 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker², yet sexual assault is such a taboo subject. And the question I have is

Whose responsibility is it to teach our children about sexual assault/abuse prevention?

School – there are many fantastic organizations, like ChildHelp USA, that have programs and speakers who will go to schools and share an age-appropriate presentation. Something to consider, though, is that there are parents who don’t think school is where they should be learning about “this“. And given some of the recent news stories of sexual assault of students by teachers, it’s easy to see why parents might not want schools to take on this role. It’s also a lot of responsibility to give a child – that they can actually prevent what’s happening to them.

Church – Bring up church and sexual assault and for many you’re opening up a can of worms. I do think if your children attend a church or church program that there is a place to incorporate the messages of reporting sexual assault or rape. Just like with educating the kids about bullying and drugs, there is an appropriate way to talk about sexual assault. Again, though, we’re often looking at older kids when, in fact, sexual assault reporting and body safety discussions need to begin earlier.

Camps and Classes – maybe it’s the summer or day camp that should have a program, or at karate or dance or swim lessons. Are these appropriate places? Would the message be one that parents supported? Should they even broach the subject of appropriate touch? This isn’t an easy one for parents to gravitate to. There are so many variables that having someone ill-equipped to have such an important discussion may actually do more harm than good.

Parents – of course I believe parents should be teaching their children, in an age appropriate manner, about their body and the rules related to their body. Bringing up the topic of sexual assault, specifically, is something that needs to be considered based on age-appropriateness. Many parents just don’t feel equipped to broach the subject. For parents who, themselves, are survivors it’s not an easy conversation. I’ve also found that for many parents, sexual assault isn’t even on the radar of things that could happen to their children. The problem, based on many of the statistics, becomes that our children could be sexually assaulted or raped long before we have the discussion with them. Ultimately, it is important that young children know that if anyone touches their body they need to tell someone. CycleGuy and I have been very clear to BabyGirl, from a very young age, of who safe adults are. We can’t just say “tell mommy” or “tell daddy”. Children need to know who a variety of safe adults are. And along these lines, we’ve taught BabyGirl that we don’t keep secrets. I dont’ think we should teach our kids how to prevent sexual assault/abuse. We don’t teach them how to prevent bullying, so why should we put such a huge responsibility on their shoulder when it comes to sexual assault and abuse.

So whose responsibility is it to teach about sexual abuse prevention? I don’t think we should be teaching about “prevention”. It’s putting the responsibility on the child. Second, our children should not be taught that if they can’t stop this then it is somehow their fault. WRONG, WRONG, and more WRONG!

We need to move the discussion away from “prevention” and not put the responsibility on our kids to stop the abuse. Abuse that is often forced upon them in physically and emotionally violent ways. When 93% of sexual assaults are by an assailant known to the victim or family, we need to remove the requirement that the child somehow must stop what’s happening to them.

I believe Body safety, sexual assault reporting and self-defense discussions have to start early. And they need to be reinforced throughout the entire village that is helping to raise our children. It’s not something that should be pushed off to one pillar. Our children can’t stand on one leg. It takes many people supporting them to help them succeed.

The question I get, a lot, is how I did it. How did I teach BabyGirl to tell me. How did I teach BabyGirl to know that what was happening was wrong, despite what the perpetrator was telling her. How did BabyGirl know that I wouldn’t be mad at her and I would believe she was telling the truth even though her assailant told her otherwise.

I can’t tell you I followed some plan and taught certain things at certain times. What she did know was that no matter what happened to her she could tell me and I’d help her. There was never a discussion about sex or strangers or anything graphic. She was 2 and 3 and 4. But we talked. And each and every time someone touched her, whether it was a push or a hug, on purpose or accident, and she told me and expressed some concern I was there. Sometimes to solve the problem, other times to give solutions so she knows what to do if there is a next time.

Now that she is almost 10, the discussion still focuses on the same basics but new information is added. The types of safe people expand as she attends school and camp. Ways to protect yourself. But the underlying message is there and it comes from me and CycleGuy.

Unfortunately, there are many parents who don’t want or don’t think “this” can happen to them. That it will scare their kids. That their kids are smart and will know what to do. That their kids know they can come to them for anything.

But just like bullying and drug education, we need to take body safety and reporting education more seriously. Maybe if the words were changed and rather than focusing on the after – the sexual assault – and focus on the safety and reporting parents would be more willing to buy in to this type of education.

I know I wouldn’t be all too happy if I got a flyer from the school touting sexual assault prevention education. Let’s be realistic and focus on empowering our children and giving them the tools that will help then. I’m not talking about pretending sexual assault doesn’t happen or sugar coating anything. Body safety and reporting is something we ALL need our children to understand.

Do you think we should teach our children about sexual assault prevention or focus the discussion around body safety, self-defense and abuse reporting education?

Sources:

1 – U.S. Department of Justice. 2004 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2004.

2 – U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement. 2000.

Image: © Sara Hawkins 2011

Sara

{ 2 comments }

Maggie August 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Thank you so much for this, Sara.

I believe the responsibility lies with all of us, the entire community. I think the challenge is too many of us are uncomfortable. My grand hope is that if everyone keeps talking about it and speaking out, the speaking out will become the norm and some of the stigma will just slip away. We have more or less successfully done this for our kids with sex, with alcohol and drugs, but we still don’t talk about sexual abuse or dating violence with that same sort of regularity and consistency across agencies, across the board. I’d love for that to change.

It starts with each of us. Thank you for doing your part here today and every day. You are a gift.

Stephanie Schwab @digifam August 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Great post, Sara! I think you are absolutely right on all counts. We’re raising our 4-year-old son with correctly named body parts, lots of discussion about who can and can’t see his parts (and whose parts he’s allowed to see), and where and when said body parts are to be touched (by him, mommy & daddy, doctor, or anyone else). I think he’s really body-savvy and smart, and though the occasional question like “mommy, why do you have a vagina and I have a penis” resonate loudly from our shared stall in the women’s room at the airport, I’m happy he knows what’s what. G-d forbid something out of the ordinary would happen, I’m pretty confident I’d be the first to know, from him.

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