As parents, one of our most important jobs is to protect our children. We make them hold our hands to cross the street. We give them helmets to wear when riding bikes or scooters or skiing. We buckle them into car seats or booster seats. We even do simple things like putting hats and gloves on them to protect them from the cold. But parents often feel ill-equip to protect their children from the unthinkable: sexual predators. Even many pediatricians often find the topic a difficult one to broach with their families.
From my perspective as a pediatrician, I encourage my families to do two things. First, please teach your children the appropriate anatomical names for their genitals. By doing so, you empower your children but you also protect them by giving them the appropriate vocabulary. Not everyone is open to little children knowing the terms “penis” and “vagina.” My own mother was horrified when my daughter announced loudly one day, “I have a vagina!” But Lydia knows what it is and knows that it is for her only.
Secondly, I encourage parents to start teaching children about “private areas” at a young age. In general, “private areas” are any part of the body covered by a bathing suit (an easy concept for young children) and are meant for them and them alone.
Feather Berkower co-authored Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse and leads Parenting Safe Children seminars in the Denver metro area. She has crafted some fantastic “Body Safe Rules” for children (Copyright Parenting Safe Children (2010). Used with permission from Parenting Safe Children. www.parentingsafechildren.com):
1) No one is allowed to touch your private body parts, except to help you clean them or if the doctor or nurse needs to examine them. (This includes siblings.)
2) You are not allowed to touch someone else’s private body parts.
3) It is OK to touch your own private body parts as long as you do it in private.
4) You and all of your family members are allowed to have privacy when bathing, dressing, and using the toilet. (Model privacy for your children.)
5) No one (adult or teenager) is allowed to take pictures of your private body parts or show you pictures of naked people.
6) When playing with friends, play with your clothes on.
7) No one is allowed to make you kiss or touch them if you don’t want to. No one is allowed to kiss or touch you if you don’t want them to, including relatives. You are allowed to choose who you kiss and touch and when you kiss and touch people.
8) You have permission to say NO and get away if anyone tries to touch your private body parts or tries to break any of your body safety rules. You never have to do what an adult or anyone tells you to do if the person is breaking a body safety rule or making you unsafe (e.g. touching private parts or keeping secrets).
9) If someone tries to or does touch your private body parts, try to get away and then go tell a trusted adult!
10) If someone tells you to keep a secret about touching private body parts, tell an adult.
A word about secrets: they may seem innocent, but encouraging your child to keep “secrets” creates a vulnerable child. Rather than saying, “Let’s keep Daddy’s birthday gift a secret!” try the phrase, “Let’s keep Daddy’s birthday gift a surprise!” By encouraging an open family that doesn’t have secrets, your child is much more likely to follow the last body safety rule. Your child will also understand that someone who cares about him would not want him to keep a secret from his parents.
Remember that your job as a parent is to educate and empower your children. Don’t be afraid to discuss sexual topics with your children because the more you talk about body safety with children, the safer they are. Also use resources such as Feather’s book, website (www.parentingsafechildren.com), and seminars to help guide you if needed. And as always, feel free to discuss any questions or concerns you have with your provider at the office.