1. At what age should I begin talking with my kids about body-safety?
It’s never too early or too late to start talking with children about their body safety, as long as the information is age-appropriate and
presented without fear. For example, when you’re bathing your 18-month-old daughter, you might say:
“Mommy is cleaning your back and your legs. Now Mommy is helping you clean your vulva. Your vulva and vagina are your private parts. You’re the boss of your body.”
As your child gets a little older, you would add to the body-safety rule: “Your vulva and your vagina are two of your private parts, and no one is allowed to touch your private parts unless you need help cleaning them, or your private parts are hurt or sick and the doctor or nurse needs to examine them. And I will always be in the room if the doctor has to look at your private parts.”
In the words of a two-year-old child, whose mother has been teaching body-safety concepts for over a year, “My vagina is mine!”
If you have a six-year-old child and you have not discussed body safety yet, you certainly can begin now. When your adorable child strips off his/her clothes running around the house, giggling while the neighbors are over, you can teach your child that when there is company in your home, clothes stay on, and private parts stay covered.
2. When should my kids stop bathing with each other and when should I (we) stop being naked in front of them?
It is common for children to begin showing modesty around age seven or eight, but it could be as early as five, or even either side of ten. Your child may seek greater privacy when he or she gets dressed or uses the bathroom, and your child may tell you that he or she does not want to bathe with siblings any longer.
If your child doesn’t express modesty through privacy requests, you might bring up the topic through teachable moments. For example, when siblings are bathing together, you might say:
“If at some point either of you prefer to bathe without your sister (or brother), that’s perfectly fine because in our home we respect each others privacy.”
I want to acknowledge that separate bathing, with two or more kids, means more work for parents, so you might consider other ways to
A word about nudity: Depending on your values, you may or may not be comfortable with nudity in your home. If you do allow nudity, be sure to reinforce body-safety rules and consider introducing boundaries if any family member expresses discomfort. Also be sure to have everyone clothed when other children or adults are visiting your home.
3. Do I have to ask permission every time I kiss or hug my child?
In Parenting Safe Children workshops and in my book, Off Limits, I discuss the importance of allowing children to choose if, when, and with whom they hug and kiss. Why is it so important to give children this choice? Because by teaching children early on about boundaries, you are setting the stage for mutual respect and consent throughout their lives.
And it turns out that a child who can say “No” to a loved one in a safe environment has a better chance of saying “No” if approached in an unsafe situation. For this reason, I recommend getting consent, particularly with younger children. You might say, “May I have a kiss?” or “Do you want a kiss?” When you ask, and a child grants or denies permission, you are empowering your child to be the boss of his or her body. And sometimes, a child who feels empowered will then rush over to hug you; on the other hand, if your child runs off asserting his/her right to choose, you can feel good knowing that you are helping your child understand the ever important concept of consent.
With older kids, you can also read body language, and when you know your child doesn’t want to be smothered with kisses, just name it — e.g., “As much as I want to give you hugs and kisses, I can see you don’t want them now and that’s your choice. You always get to choose whether you want to be touched, or not.”
If you’re having trouble bringing a family member on board with this body-safety rule, please share this newsletter and invite that individual onto your prevention team.
4. If my child doesn’t ask questions or seem curious about sex, should I bring it up?
Yes! Be proactive and look for teachable moments to open conversations. Some children are reluctant to ask questions about sexuality, or just don’t ask a lot of questions in general. Your child may never ask, but it’s still important for you be their first correct source of information.
You can normalize conversations about sexual development at different stages in your child’s growth. For example, if your five-year-old child stares at your menstrual blood in the toilet but doesn’t ask questions, use it as a teachable moment and provide basic information. “Mommy has her period right now which means there’s some blood coming out of her vagina. Mommy is not hurt. The blood is coming out because Mommy is not growing a baby. When a baby grows, the blood feeds the baby.”
Your child might say, “Oh” and run off to play, but you’ve started the conversation and have let your child know that no topics are off limits. When discussing sexual development with children, all you ever have to do is just give the facts and tell the truth.
5. What if I teach my seven-year-old child about sex and he/she tells friends about it?
Of course kids are going to discuss sex with their friends! It’s fascinating, right?
I recommend being proactive by letting your children’s caregivers know that you have discussed sex. If your child has a best friend, you might even tell his or her parents. In the same conversation, reinforce your child’s body-safety rules.
Remember to avoid saying to your child, “Don’t tell your friends about sex.” If you do so, you’ll be contradicting your “no secrets” rule, and kids will tell their friends anyway. If it’s really a concern to you, you might say: “Many times parents like to be the ones to teach their children about sex, so let’s let Liam’s parent(s) tell him when they’re ready.”
6. How do I know if my toddler is safe? She can’t tell me if someone has broken a body-safety rule?
The fewer caregivers you have, the lower the risk of abuse. If you don’t have the option of limiting caregivers, be sure to talk with every caregiver about your child’s body-safety rules and invite each one onto your prevention team.
While screening is your best prevention tool, it’s also important to know the signs of sexual abuse. (See Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse.)
7. How do I speak with my children about touching their own genitals?
Like any other conversation with children, talk about touching genitals candidly, accurately, and perhaps most importantly, without shame. Your child will present you with ample teachable moments to introduce and reinforce body-safety concepts alongside your values, and it really is possible to answer kid’s questions in an age-appropriate way.
Consider this common situation: Your child has her hands in her pants. It could be in public, when relatives are visiting, or while playing with other children, but here’s what a response might look like:
“It’s okay to touch your vulva/vagina, but that’s something you do when you’re by yourself. Your vulva and vagina are private parts of your body, so you touch them when you have privacy.”
And then you would redirect your child’s attention to something else.
It’s even okay to acknowledge pleasure. Consider this exchange between a Dad and his 4-year-old son:
“Dad, look It’s so big and purple!”
“Yes, that’s because when you touch your penis it feels good.”
Fast forward to fifth or sixth grade, and now age-appropriate discussions might include nocturnal emissions and an explanation that an orgasm is a pleasurable feeling that comes from your penis being touched — and that it’s normal and okay. Remind your child that he can touch his own penis but others cannot until he gives consent as an older teen or adult.
I know talking about masturbation may be uncomfortable, but just like you nurture your child’s emotional, spiritual, and physical development, it’s important to nurture your child’s sexual development. Why? Sexual offenders look for children who are uninformed about sex so the offender can teach the child. The more you’re available to your child with information about sex and
sexuality, the more likely your children will go to you for information, and the less vulnerable your child is to sexual abuse.
8. If I teach my kids about sex in primary school, isn’t it going to make them curious to try sex?
Contrary to popular belief, talking to kids about sex does not make them go out and have sex. Not talking about sex and sexuality, however, does contribute to misinformation, confusion, shame, and body image issues. And most pertinent to this discussion, talking with children about sex and sexuality, in an age-appropriate way, empowers children and teens around body safety. It lets them know that no topic is off limits, which makes kids more likely to speak with you about both safe and unsafe situations.
You can certainly reinforce your values while having conversations about sex. For instance, “I’m really glad we can talk about sexuality because I don’t want you to be confused or get misinformation from other kids. In our family we really value …”
9. Do sex offenders “groom” children in front of other people?
Yes, sometimes offenders will groom right in front of you because they want to desensitize you to grooming behavior. Consider this situation: A neighbor spends more time playing with children than adults, and is seen pulling up a child’s shirt and tickling a child’s belly. By engaging in this seemingly playful behavior in front of you, the offender wants you to think, “Gosh, he’s so great with kids,” and hopes you will not set boundaries.
I am not suggesting that all adults who play with and tickle kids are offenders, but rather that it’s important to learn the signs of grooming, which I discuss in Off Limits and the Parenting Safe Children Workshop.
10. What happens when a report of child abuse is made to Child Protective Services (CPS)?
Child Protective Services (CPS and sometimes called Department of Children & Family Services) is a government agency and its mission is to keep kids safe. When you report actual or suspected abuse to CPS, a screening team reviews the reported incident and determines, based on the state’s criteria, whether to investigate it. If the incident does not meet the state’s criteria, the report is kept on file anyway, which is why it’s important to report suspected abuse. If the incident does meet the state’s criteria, the child is interviewed by a qualified interviewer who determines if the child is in imminent danger and what action should be taken. When the alleged offender is not a family member, law enforcement may get involved; otherwise, social services remains involved.
Remember, the purpose of making a report is to protect the child. CPS wants to keep families together.
For more information about keeping children safe from sexual abuse, visit parentingsafechildren.com