Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Children in Danger

I'm reading a beautiful but sad book right now. It's called Feather Man by Rhyll McMaster. In the book, a young girl is sexually abused by her neighbor. It's horrible. And I started reading the book after hearing the news about the girl kidnapped and abused in California. We live in a world with some pretty awful people. There's this part of me that never wants to let Jack out of my sight again.

Sexual abuse is NOT rare. It happens to a lot of children. I am betting that a lot of people who read this post will have their own personal history of abuse, or they'll at least know of someone else who has been abused.

I want to write about my own feelings about how these things can be prevented. I don't want to say it's 100% preventable. Even if you do all the right things, something bad can still happen. There is no perfect solution. However, I think there are things that we do to children that can increase their likelihood of being abused.

Some might say that the best and only way to protect our children is to never take our eyes off of them. I don't like that advice. It sounds tempting at times, but it's impossible. Who can be with their children every single minute of their lives? And yeah. We ALL need our breaks!

Anyway, here's my list. I don't think any of it comes from my own original brain. I'm pretty sure I've encountered most if it in books, conversations, websites, lectures, etc.

1. Parents who teach their children to obey and respect all adults. We all want our kids to be the sweet polite ones. But I think it's a huge mistake to let them assume all adults deserve their respect and obedience. Some adults do NOT deserve this. Some of them deserve fear along with a fight or flight response. What I try to teach Jack is that he must show respect to adults who are nice to him. If an adult is being civil and friendly, I want Jack to be civil and friendly back.

2. Parents who emphasize stranger danger. There are parents out there who teach their children NEVER to talk to strangers. Yet these same parents won't hesitate to let that friendly soccer coach spend all that time alone with their daughter. People, there are times to be paranoid....this is one of them. Every male who likes children is NOT a pervert or sex offender. But they should be suspected of it. I'm not saying we should never let our children be alone with their teacher, coach, neighbor, uncle, cousin, etc. But anytime, a man wants to spend a lot of time with our children....we should ask ourselves some questions. We should at least CONSIDER the possibility of something being wrong.

Let's say cousin Tony invites your little Sally on a camping trip once a month. You're happy because you and your husband get some time alone. Now it MAY be all lovely and innocent. But it's so important that this NOT be taken for granted.

3. Parents who fail to teach their children about sex. In the novel, the young child has no idea what's happening to her. She doesn't understand anatomy. She doesn't understand what this man is doing to her. She just knows she doesn't like it. She feels it isn't right, but I don't think she knows it's wrong. I feel maybe if the child knew more, maybe she would have protested and ran away. Since this was a neighbor and not some violent aggressive kidnapping stranger....I think the villain might have been embarrassed and let her go.

My feeling is children should know what sex is. They should know what a penis, vagina, and vulva are. Jack knows all these things. I think he's known since he was four. He knows what a uterus is. He knows about egg and sperm. We've taught him that sex is a beautiful thing that ADULTS do. It's NOT for children.

I think some parents avoid the discussion of sex, and instead just teach their children that people shouldn't touch them in their private parts. That's okay. I just worry it's incomplete. I think it adds too much mystery to these private parts. I also believe that the tone of the conversation might lead children to believe these parts are "yucky".

4. Children who are forced to kiss and hug adults. This is one of my pet peeves. If Mary is told she MUST kiss Aunt Lilly when we ask, how will she respond when Great Uncle Bob asks her to touch his penis? I see nothing wrong with SUGGESTING a child hug or kiss someone. I think this is fine. I think sometimes a child wants some affection and is too shy to reach out for it themselves. But if they refuse, I think it's so important to respect that. What I'll do sometimes is say something like That's okay. How about a wave instead? Or if the child doesn't look too bothered, give them a gentle kiss on the top of their head.

5. Adults who tickle a child and keep doing it even when the child begs them to stop. Children need to know that NO is a valued word. They need to know that their NO has power. They need to learn to listen to other people's NO's. Some people might argue. Yeah, he said no. But he was laughing. He was having fun! Sometimes our bodies don't respond in the way that we want it to.

I do have some challenges with Jack here, because he'll sometimes say no when he actually likes something and wants it to continue. It's something we're working on...we've BEEN working on. I think it's okay to say no and then change your mind. I don't think it's okay to say no when you really mean yes. It's way too confusing.

My feeling is that anytime a child asks us to stop doing something, we should stop doing it.. Well, I mean for the fun stuff. Jack yells and pleads for me to stop cleaning behind his ears. That's a different story.

If you tickle a child and they ask you to stop....stop.

If you pick up a child and they ask to be put down....put them down.

What happens to the child who has their requests constantly ignored? What if someone starts raping them? I imagine some of them don't even try to fight. Why say no, right? They were never listened to before. Why would anyone listen now?

6. The child who is not believed Now I don't fall for the old....children are COMPLETELY honest. I think people who say that haven't spent enough time with children. They have this very idealistic view of kids. Children do and can lie. Some children lie more than others. Some children make quite a habit out of it. If a child says that someone touched them in a bad way, I don't think we're 100% guaranteed that it's true. BUT I think the child should be taken very seriously. Even a habitually dishonest child should be listened to and considered when making such a claim. I don't care HOW much you like your stepfather-in-law. I don't care that he's raised three daughters of his own, is a fireman, and has won twenty hero awards. If your child says he touched her in a bad way, pay attention. Listen to her. Take her seriously. She might very well be telling the truth.

7. Children who have a bad relationship to their parents. I don't count teenagers in this because how many teens have good relationships with their parents? I'm not sure I'd even include this one if it weren't for the book. But in the book, the young girl feels neglected by her parents. She seeks attention from the neighbor. If a child doesn't feel loved and valued at home, she may seek "love" elsewhere. She may put her trust in someone who doesn't deserve her trust. Now this doesn't mean we have to give our children our constant undivided attention. We don't need to smother them with treats, toys, and great jokes. We don't have to be perfect. We just need to be there for them....a lot of the time. We need to let them know that they can come to us when they have problems. We can't understand and emphasize with them ALL the time, but we can let them know we at least TRY.

I'm sorry this post is so dogmatic and didactic. Feel free to argue with me on any points. I won't bite your head off. I'll just argue back....or you might make me see things differently. Who knows.....

You know I like to provide links, so here is some more advice on the whole issue.

Protecting Children From Sexual Abuse


7 Steps to Protecting Our Children

Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse

About.Com (this says a lot of what I said. They probably say it better than me. They also mention some important stuff I failed to mention)

6 comments:

HappyOrganist said...

it is very common.
my rule (which echoes some of yours) is: don't be stupid.

;)

Dina said...

HappyOrganist,

I think though that a lot of people don't realize these things are "stupid".

It's stuff that adults had done to them when they were a kid...and now they do the same stuff.

Like with the tickling. We've probably had it all done to us. Are there actually any kids out there who like it? I hated the feeling...that feeling of being overpowered, and the loss of control of my emotions and reactions. Yet adults still do that to kids. They see the kids laughing and think...Look! I'm so good with children!

Jeff D'Antonio said...

You raise some very good points, and I especially like the one about children being taught that when they say "NO" it means something - it's easy to overlook that as we teach our kids to respect the authority of adults.

I am a father, step-father, uncle, teacher, private tutor, counselor, and coach. As such, I spend a lot of time with other peoples' children, and if people eyed me suspiciously for that, then I don't think I'd want to do any of those things anymore.

It all comes down to trust. There are different levels of trust, and you have to take that into account in any given situation. There are certain people you would completely trust to leave your children alone with, and certain people you would not trust at all. And in between those two extremes are the people (such as teachers, coaches, counselors, etc) to whom you have to give a certain amount of limited trust. But of course, how do you really know who you can and can not trust? You don't. For that, you have to rely on your instincts, and those instincts can sometimes be wrong. Even a close relative, or a friend you've known for years (or for that matter, even a spouse) can have a dark side that you don't know about. How well do you trust your own instincts about the people you know and trust?

When I'm going to be coaching or tutoring someone's child in a one-on-one setting and I don't already know the parents, I try to let them get to know me a little bit first to establish some initial level of trust. It's okay with me if they want to hang around for the first few sessions and keep an eye on things until they get to know me better. I have to be very aware of the situation and the level of trust at all times when I'm alone with someone's child. When can a pat on the back be misconstrued as more than just a pat on the back? Well, it depends on the situation and the level of trust involved. When I coach girls' softball, I will hug a player when she scores a run - out on the open field in full view of everyone; but I would never hug a student for getting the right answer during a private tutoring session, because there's too much room for misinterpretation in that setting.

Ultimately, I think it does come down to what we teach our kids about appropriate and inappropriate physical contact, and having an open line of communication with them so that they know they can talk to us if something happens that makes them feel uncomfortable. If one of my girls came home from school and told me that her teacher touched her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, I would certainly take her seriously and follow up on it; on the other hand, if she told me that her teacher patted her on the back for a job well done, I would ask enough questions to clarify in my mind that it was just an innocent pat on the back and leave it at that. If we automatically assume that every man is a child predator, and every pat on the back is an inappropriate touch, then we end up with a society that I don't want to be a part of.

Dina said...

Jeff,

I can imagine it would be hard to feel not trusted....or not be given an immediate benefit of doubt.

However, we live in a world where SO many children are molested.

I wish we could live in a world where we could leave our doors unlock and not be suspicious of friendly people.

But we DON'T live in that world.

I think it's good that you are patient with parents--allow them to stick around until they feel comfortable.

I think some adults give parents the opposite impression. "What's wrong with you? You're overprotective. You're paranoid. Stop being a helicopter parent. Come on! You can trust ME! How long have we known each other! You know I'd never hurt a child."

It's men like that who I'd most worry about. In a sense, they're bullying parents to give them time alone with the child.

I think I'd be more trustful of the man who's understanding of my concerns and hesitations.

I definitely don't think we should assume that every man is a predator. On the other hand, I don't think we should assume that any man is NOT a predator.

I think we need to be suspicious, but at the same time...open-hearted and open-minded.

Andrew said...

No argument from me, just a question. You said about washing behind Jack's ears. It this a metaphor for general face and neck washing? I have heard the expression in American tv shows, but I never recall it being said in Australia. Perhaps all Aussie kids are dirty behind the ears.

Dina said...

Andrew,

lol...and I keep laughing.

I think we really DO need to move to Australia because I'm pretty bad at remembering to clean behind Jack's ears....I guess it's kind of near his neck actually...the part of the neck near the ears.

I hope that makes sense.