Open-Source Parenting: Body Safety

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until after the Steubenville High School rape case in 2012 that I realized that consent was a Thing. I mean, I’d always known the word, but I’d never before thought of it as a principle, something to be taught and learned and insisted upon the way we do with freedom and equality. I remember reading Abby Norman’s post The Day I Taught How Not to Rape and feeling stunned by the simple truth of her premise:

“We have to teach clearly and boldly that consent is… an enthusiastic, unequivocal YES!”

Maybe those of you who came from Quiverfull-style backgrounds can relate to my own upbringing in which the guiding principle was submission rather than consent. Children and women were taught that our bodies were not our own and that struggling against a physical aggressor in a position of authority over us was grounds for harsher treatment. Intimacy was something to be claimed by those in power. I can hardly think of a more dangerous mindset for sheltered children to grow up believing.

After several episodes of “submitting” to boyfriends who wanted to take advantage of me, I was finally able to reject that mentality, and I am often reminded of how grateful I am to be here, free, seeing my own voice carry weight. This has taken time to filter down into my parenting through. I’ve taught my girls from the beginning about which parts of their body are off-limits to everyone except Mom and their doctor (“If someone tries to touch you there, you say…?” “NO!!!!”), but we never talked any further about why someone might want to touch them there or what other kinds of predatory behavior they should watch out for. Part of it was that I didn’t want to scare the girls, but the larger reason was that I honestly hadn’t considered the possibility that they would be targeted.

Who wants to think about that? Let me tell you, there is a special kind of nausea reserved for parents who imagine their children being groomed by a sexual predator. I was so unwilling to go there that I didn’t even think about my unwillingness to think about it… until recently when a friend with a daughter Sophie’s age had to confront some troubling attention her daughter was receiving from a bus monitor. I spent the whole next morning doing research on how to talk to kids about body safety and then made up a worksheet that Dan and I went over with the girls at lunch (and have referred to several times since).

Our conversation was mercifully devoid of the fear and the ick-factor that my inner pessimist had expected. Dan and I talked matter-of-factly, answering the girls’ questions and helping them role-play scenarios so they could practice safe responses. We focused on these main points:

  • I am the boss of my own body! We reiterated what they should do if someone tries to touch their bathing suit areas and then talked at length about how they can refuse any kind of touch that makes them uncomfortable. This can be a delicate subject here in Italy, where even new acquaintances will bend down and ask children for a kiss on the cheek. However, Dan and I agreed that the girls’ personal boundaries are more important than society’s standards of politeness, and we taught them how to say, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not” and stick to it, even (especially!!) if the person gets upset.
  • I don’t keep secrets from Mom & Dad! We clarified the difference between a surprise (something you’ll get to tell soon) and a secret (something you’re never supposed to tell) and impressed on the girls how important it is that they tell us immediately if anyone ever asks them to keep a secret from us. We had to do a wee bit of backpedaling on this one as Natalie’s first question was, “So I have to tell you secrets my friends tell me at school?” Dan and I did the best we could explaining which kinds of secrets are okay for the girls to keep and which ones aren’t, and it’s possible the whole subject is more confusing than ever. We’ll try to keep open dialogue about it though and hope that the main point sticks.
  • If I don’t have permission from Mom & Dad, I don’t do it! This one provided the most role-playing hilarity, but our point was simple. If someone—even someone they know—asks the girls to come into their house, get into their car, or take a walk with them, they need to get permission first. Period. End of story. No exceptions. We did clarify that they can get permission from a babysitter or relative that we have personally put in charge of them, but they should never take someone’s word that it will be fine to go off alone.
  • I stay away from “tricky people”! I got this wording from Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety expert who makes the point that “strangers” only make up 10% of those who sexually abuse children. Instead, we want our girls to be wary of any “tricky person,” defined as anyone who makes our girls feel unsafe, nervous, or icky, anyone who won’t respect the girls’ boundaries, or anyone significantly older than them who says they specially need the girls’ help. (That last one is apparently a tactic that predators use to lure kids away or groom them toward a more intimate relationship.) If they feel someone is acting “tricky” around them, the girls are to come tell us right away.
  • If I get lost when I’m out, I… The girls already knew the first rule about getting lost in public, which is that they should stop right where they are and wait for us to find them rather than wander around looking for us. We then taught them that if they see a police offer or a mom with kids come by, those are safe people to ask for help. They should then ask those people to call their parents from where they’re standing. (The girls know both of our mobile numbers by heart. Mostly. We’ve been quizzing them every couple of days to be sure.)

I’m grateful that we were able to have a good family discussion about boundaries without making the girls paranoid of every single adult male in their lives or every stranger on the sidewalk. In fact, as we talked, I realized just how empowering the conversation was. We were teaching the girls that they have the right to say no to unwanted touch. What I would have given for that sense of ownership over my own body as a girl!

I’m not sure whether or not we’ve covered everything we should on this topic with the girls. When I read that the director of GRACE, a Christian child abuse investigation firm, has seen too much to allow his daughters to sleep over at their friends’ houses or attend church camps, my throat closed up a little. Is it really as bad as that? Am I endangering my children every time I leave them in someone else’s care? The idea of keeping the girls confined to home doesn’t sit well with me, so I’m trusting that there’s a balance between naivety and paranoia. Surely we can be informed and prepared without thinking the worst of everyone around us. Surely our children can take steps toward independence without opening themselves to abuse. Surely, surely, fear should not be our rubric for parenting any more than denial should.

The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is that we can share our collective wisdom for the benefit of all, so here’s where I open it up to you. What are your thoughts on teaching body safety to kids? Are there any strategies or conversations that have worked well in your experience? I’m still very, very new at this line of thought, so I’d appreciate any insights you might have… and judging by the sheer number of new parents among my friends, I suspect I’m not the only one.

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  1. Thanks for sharing! I have no clue where to start on this issue but your article gave me some ideas. Of course my kids are much younger than yours but the years will pass quickly 🙂
    I just wanted to add that I think the subject is equally important for boys. We have a boy and a girl and I plan to teach both of them about boundaries, saying no, and owning their own bodies. I guess my question is, what do you think is a good age to start having the discussions?

    • So good to hear from you, Bonnie! And as a mama of girls, I’m especially to hear moms of boys approaching this subject intentionally. 🙂 I’m still figuring out for myself what counts as an age-appropriate conversation, but I can tell you that I started a simple dialogue about body parts when they were preschool age. Every time they were in the bath, I’d point out their “special” body parts by name, and we’d do this little back-and-forth:
      Me: “Who’s allowed to touch you there?”
      Girls: “Just me!” (We have talked about the occasional need for doctors to touch as well, but that never made it into our script.)
      Me: “And if someone else tries to, you tell them…?”
      Girls: “NO!”
      Me: “And then…?”
      Girls: “We go tell Mom and Dad, or a teacher if we’re at school.”

      We started that pretty much as soon as they were out of diapers, and they always enjoyed shouting out the answers. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this post. I have thought a lot about consent, despite growing up Fundamentalist, but I attribute that to a series of terrible events that have befallen my family. I think you are right though, too much discussion talks about submission and not permission. Which is wrong.

    As far as the issue of consent goes. I’ve read a lot about how to teach children about their bodies and how to help them protect themselves (again, the events). Most experts recommend starting as early as two–teaching your children the proper names for their body parts and telling them that they are special and only for them to touch. With my daughter we’ve started this discussion during bathtime as I called out body parts for her to wash. Then I explained how all of her body is special and its for her to take care of and to touch and if anyone tries to touch it and she doesn’t want them to, to tell them “no” and go find mommy or daddy.

    I also believe in consent in the small things. Like hair. Her hair is hers. It’s her choice. I’m not forcing hair styles or dress styles on her (beyond basic care and cleanliness and weather-appropriateness). I get a lot of flak from family who insist that she shouldn’t have her hair down or wear ballgowns to the park. But it is her body and the control is hers. I plan the same for my son, but he’s just a little thing yet.

    But I always start by using the proper bodily nomenclature.

    • I love that you’re letting hair and wardrobe be your daughter’s choice. That was always a huge source of strife and frustration when I was a kid, and I know my own girls appreciate having some control over that. (I could probably do better about letting them call the shots there… I need to get over the urge to keep up appearances in a city where parents dress their daughters in tights and patent leather shoes to go to the playground!)

      And yes, I didn’t mention this in the post, but I agree that teaching our kids the proper terminology is important. I originally did that just because I didn’t want shame or embarrassment to be associated with body parts in my girls’ minds, but I’m especially glad now that I know that it could help protect from predators (who often use cutesy nicknames for their victims’ body parts).

      Thanks for your input!

  3. Sorry about that but my first post didn’t go through 🙂

    I think your talking points were excellent. Pretty similar to what my mom used to tell us, and I feel like we had a pretty healthy take on what was and wasn’t acceptable regarding interaction with adults (or kids of our own age). Bravi to you guys for being brave (bah dum ching) and having that conversation, which I am sure wasn’t easy.

    Also, this is a bit of a sidetrack, but since you closed your piece talking about letting children find independence, I thought I would share these two excellent articles with you… read them this weekend and thought they were both really insightful.


    • Sorry about the commenting issues! My spam filter caught the comment with the links and was holding it for my approval. :/

      Thanks so much for passing the articles along. (I’d already read the Atlantic one and highly recommend it!) This whole topic is very much tied to independence in my mind, and I’m hopeful that arming my kids with the right responses to shady situations will help us all deal with their growing autonomy.

  4. This is great! I love that you empowered your girls and as I have a (almost paranoia, but working on it) concern about my child being preyed upon, I read an article that having empowered, self assured, children who understand their bodies, and the people around them are less likely to be preyed upon. The article (I wish I could remember it) said that predators are less likely (sadly not a garauntee) to choose children who have been empowered, who know their boundaries, and feel like they can say no. These children are harder to groom as they are less minipulatable and their parents are more diligent. It’s at least a step in protecting our children, so your sires is awesome, thanks.

    • Hi Tara! I feel you about trying to keep from full-out paranoia. It’s horrific to think about the possibilities and what would possibly be worth risking them. My go-to strategy is just stuffing down the fear and ignoring it so I don’t turn into Adam Sandler’s mom from The Waterboy. 😀 Thanks for your comment and for working through this complicated topic with me.

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