At eight and six years of age, we’re sending our boys out into the world more and more without being right by their side.
As they grow, our ability to veto the people they come into contact with becomes less and less.
This trend will continue as the kids ask for more opportunities to be independent, which is something we’ll encourage to grow their confidence and resilience.
But how do we keep them safe?
The answer for our family is body safety education.
But what does that conjure up for you?
Do you wonder where to start, what words to use, how far you’ll have to go?
Do you feel sick thinking about talking about private parts with your kids?
Do you feel your child is ‘not old enough’ and fear you’ll end their carefree, happy and innocent childhood by talking about these things?
For my latest blog I spoke with Caroline Ellen, a Melbourne Mum of two with many years’ experience as a social worker and educator in schools on body safety. Caroline runs a business called ‘Safer Stronger Kids,’ which offers body safety courses for parents, as well as parent training and mentoring more generally.
In a series of posts on this site, I’ve been exploring the idea that ‘kids should be kids’ and, it’s variant, ‘let kids be kids’. It seems to me the values associated with these ideas, including kids being happy and having fun, and being sheltered from the worries of the adult world, may hijack talking to our kids about body safety. Some of the things we do because we want to ‘let kids be kids’ could compromise their body safety too – like giving their private parts nicknames and dismissing or minimising their feelings and jumping in to solve their problems.
If something is holding you back from talking to your kids about these things, I hope this post encourages you to think about it further.
1. Goodbye innocence, hello worries?
“Some people say they’re worried their child’s innocence will be taken away in educating them on body safety. To that I say that body safety education does not take away their innocence, it helps to protect it by keeping them safe from abuse,” says Caroline.
Caroline also says that parents can be concerned about worrying their kids about the prospect of sexual abuse. But Caroline says the research shows that kids don’t worry more or become more anxious when they do body safety education. “It’s actually can be an empowering experience for them,” she says.
Caroline recommends that parents start giving body safety messages from when their kids are three and, otherwise, as soon as possible.
“It sounds early doesn’t it, but the secret is using age-appropriate language,” she says.
“And the advantage of starting early is that the messages can be reinforced over time. When you are wiping your child’s bottom, for example, you can talk about your child’s body parts and who can touch them.”
2. What’s in a name?
“The way we name and talk about our private parts is a really good example of a topic within the body safety umbrella that parents really struggle with,” says Caroline.
“Parents can worry about telling their children the anatomical names for their private parts. It can make them feel awkward and embarrassed, perhaps because when they were kids these things were never discussed or were regarded as dirty or rude words. They may also feel that by using the correct anatomical terms, it may sexualise their child.”
“The other thing I hear frequently is that parents worry that their child will run through the playground shouting ‘penis, penis, penis’. To that I ask, have you ever heard a child running through the playground shouting ‘arm, arm, arm’? Kids will take their cues from their parents – if you are uncomfortable saying these words, if you react like they’re rude or dirty words, the kids will pick up on it.”
And this is not just an oh, aren’t we a funny lot us parents, light-hearted kind of discussion. It’s serious and may, according to Caroline, compromise their body safety in a number of ways.
“Firstly, if children sense that we’re uncomfortable talking about private parts, that they’re dirty words or they are shameful, including when we give them nicknames, they may not talk to us when something is wrong or if they experience sexual abuse. Secondly, your child might have difficulty getting help if they are unfamiliar with the proper names for their private parts because the person they approach may not know what they mean or may be less likely to take it seriously. And, another reason is that the use of unusual nicknames may affect any investigation of abuse.”
3. Building confidence in their feelings
We all want happy children. We want our children to look back on their childhood and say it was happy.
Sometimes we can be too quick to jump in and solve our children’s problems: to turn that frown upside down!
And sometimes we might dismiss or minimise their feelings. I know I do it when we’re in a rush to get out the door. Does “you’ll be right” sound familiar or “don’t worry, everything will be all right in the morning”, or even “don’t be silly”?
And while this all comes from the right place – from love and a desire to make everything better – it could actually be compromising our children’s body safety.
Caroline says we need to allow children to express their feelings and have confidence in what they are feeling.
“It’s an important component of body safety education – to help kids listen to their bodies, to encourage them to trust their bodies and to give them the message that we trust them too,” Caroline says.
It means that if they are in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, they can process the messages their body’s are giving and they know we will have their backs to speak up and remove themselves from the situation. Makes sense, doesn’t it!
4. Culture of consent
Another really important aspect of Caroline’s body safety education program for parents relates to teaching kids that they are the boss of their own body and body bubble (and that each other person is the boss of their own body). This discussion is a building block to understanding consent.
Caroline urges parents to not just have these conversations with their children, but to create a culture of consent at home as well.
“Sometimes this is the hardest part”, says Caroline. “As the parent, we can rely on our size and our strength to get things done. Like, for instance, getting our children to brush their teeth, getting them into the car or the pram pronto or even changing their nappy.”
But what kind of culture does it create? What is it telling our children for when they are older and beginning to have sexual relationships?
Our boys like to kiss Miss Gubby goodnight. But lately she’s been saying ‘no’. Yes, I want my children to be polite and I want to foster strong sibling relationships. But what am I telling Miss Gubby, and what am I telling the boys, if I allow them to force it? As Caroline says, no one owes anyone else physical affection. So at these times, with Caroline’s wise words in my head, I explain that Miss Gubby is the boss of her own body, that the boys can ask for a kiss or a cuddle (and they should ask first!), but she can decide if she agrees or not, just as the boys also have that power to decide if someone asks them too.
While Caroline acknowledges that we parents cannot always ask for or wait for consent (for example, nappy changes or where a child needs to see a doctor but doesn’t want to), we can explain the reason why we need to do something (for example, to keep the child healthy or safe), make the situation more comfortable and give them some choices around it.
In her course, Caroline also talks about that tricky situation where a friend or a relative asks for a hug or a kiss and the child doesn’t want to.
“It’s really important that we don’t override the child’s feelings because we want them to trust their feelings. We want them to know that they are the boss of their own body and they can give and refuse affection as they choose and that they have our full support to do so. Of course we also want our kids to be polite, but there are many ways to greet or farewell people or to thank them for gifts. Saying hello, goodbye or thank you are also polite gestures,” says Caroline.
A high-five is a favoured gesture in our family – and I know our kids generally feel comfortable with a high-five in most situations. So when they’re trying to come up with a gesture to mark a greeting or a farewell and they’re a bit stuck because they sense the person might want more than just words, this is often the one I suggest!
And, on the subject of high-fives: if you made it this far I’d like to give you a virtual one! This is not easy this stuff. In fact, it’s hard, really hard, to get our heads around. It’s the stuff no one tells you about when you’re waddling around with baby no one on the way and it’s oh so important.
I hope this post has been thought-provoking reading. Any questions or comments, please let me know!
In terms of help getting started talking to your kids about body safety, I’d hand on heart recommend Caroline’s body safety course to you. Caroline offers tools for having the conversations and creating a culture at home that promotes body safety. While founded in academic research and years of experience, Caroline’s advice comes with a healthy dose of reality. “Some days we don’t get these things right, me included,” she says.
For more about Safer Stronger Kids and to learn about Caroline’s body safety course, see @saferstrongerkids on Facebook. A new look body safety course for parents is launching in November 2019!