#MeToo. I was in college. I went to a party and was dancing with a random guy. He kept grabbing my waist and hips to pull me close to him. At first, I resisted with a smooth, dance-move forearm and a quick two-step back but he didn’t get the message. Or he ignored it. When his advances became more aggressive and vulgar, I simply stopped dancing and turned to walk away. He then pushed me, called me a “B****” and moved on to his next victim. I shook it off. But less than two hours later as we left, it happen again. A guy I had dated briefly the year before, called my name and came up to my car window. He stuck his head inside the window, grabbed my face and tried to kiss me. Clearly, he had been drinking. I pulled away asking, “What are you doing?” His reply was a hard push to the side of my face.
Although I feel that my ‘me too’ experiences are mild compared to some of the most painful stories of individuals sharing across the world, we can all agree with activist, Tarana Burke to fight against this culture of abuse and with Oprah as she proclaims, “Times Up!” This movement is all about combatting any and all forms of sexual abuse, assault, harassment and exploitation. It’s about raising awareness, empowering victims, changing mentalities, and healing together.
As a pediatrician, I look at every problem through the lens of prevention and ask myself, “What can I teach parents and children that will prevent this from happening to them?” So naturally while thinking about this powerful movement, I went into pediatrician mode pondering the teachable moments from ‘Me too’ for our kids. What are the lessons that will empower them against abusers like Nassar? What are the lessons that will prevent them from becoming alleged abusers like Weinstein? In my opinion, we have to start with the basics.
1. From the time you began singing to your toddler, “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” I suggest that you not leave out the genitals. Just add it after “nose….don’t forget breast, vagina, or penis, testes….knees and toes.”
Why is this so important?
-Children who say the proper terms are more comfortable discussing their bodies. I witness this firsthand in medical practice. They don’t cover their face, giggle or seem embarrassed when they hear the words vagina or penis or have to discuss it.
-Children who use nicknames like “wee wee” or “pocketbook” may struggle to clearly communicate problems with the genitals or in worse cases exactly where they were touched by an abuser.
-Kids who are comfortable discussing their body and those who communicate correctly all body parts maybe more empowered to seek medical attention or even report abuse because they are not ashamed.
As your children transition into the preschool years, you should explain which body parts are private-only to be seen or touched by themselves, parents and adults approved by parents. Encourage your child to tell you if someone breaks this rule. Help them to understand that they are not at fault and will not be in trouble. Discourage keeping secrets.
A drawing of circles can easily explain the concepts of privacy, strangers and touch for your child. The innermost circle represents the names of close family members that you tell your child is ok to help with bathing, dressing and toileting. The middle circle is for individuals your family may know well but are not approved for private matters. This could be friends, teachers, coaches and family members that you regularly give hugs and high fives but that’s about it. The larger, outer circle generally represents strangers or people you don’t know well. Most parents advise their children not to speak to strangers or allow touching unless a guardian is present. And I agree.
Ok vs. Not ok Touch
Privacy and Touch can overlap. And with so many possibilities, it can be confusing to children. Is it ok for the little, old lady in the grocery line to pat me on the head or my Sunday school teacher to take me to the restroom or my teammate to swat me on the butt after we score?
Your family and your child get to decide what is ok and not ok. He or she should feel comfortable asking for privacy and refusing and reporting inappropriate touch. So have these discussions often and in different ways. Share a story. Role play. Give fun quizzes. Whatever it takes for your child to be prepared.
And the reverse is true. Make sure your child knows that it is not ok to invade the privacy of others or touch another’s private body parts.
My body, I decide
Children should be allowed to choose if they want to hug or kiss someone. We all have felt the discomfort of our child snubbing a friend’s handshake or grandpa’s kiss. But still they shouldn’t be made to feel bad if they decide against it. You never want to empower an abuser to be able to guilt or shame your child into doing something they are not comfortable with.
My son is a big hugger. I see him giving hugs all the time and everyone tells me about his great hugs. However, it concerns me because I sometimes see him giving them when they aren’t exactly wanted. He often forgets to gain consent. I remind him to ask permission.
Me: “ask, Can I have a hug?”
Him:“What if they say no?”
Me: “Well, then you can’t give them a hug. And that’s ok. Remember, they get to decide what happens to their body.
It’s so important that children understand that consent works both ways.
It’s also essential that kids understand that consent is not always verbal-a yes or no. Reading nonverbal cues is an important skill for children to gain. They can learn this concept by relating it to traffic signals.
Most children understand that red means stop, yellow means caution or slow down, and green means go. Explain to your child that red light cues like crying, frowning, or pulling away clearly mean “stop what you’re doing.” Yellow light cues are behaviors that seem uncertain, withdrawn or not fully engaged in the activity. And green light cues send the message of yes with a smile and going along.
So when I see my son hug his classmate’s little sister even though she’s frowning, I quickly ask, “red light or green light?”
A Lesson for Parents
As parents and authority figures, we must model these protective practices: proper body talk, privacy, touch and consent. We have to talk the talk and walk the walk. Dads, your son may struggle with gaining consent if he sees you touching women inappropriately or harming his mother physically. And moms, your daughter may submit to bodily harm if she witnesses you stay in an abusive relationship. You demonstrate all of these principles in some way everyday.
Well, this blog has gone way longer than I expected. There are just so many lessons that can be discussed on this subject. I may need to write a Part 2. Between now and then, you will have plenty of time to discuss these five lessons with your children.
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