Empowering Kids to Stop Child Molesters*
*This is not to say that kids are in charge of protecting themselves – that is the parent’s job. These ideas are just part of the process of raising empowered children.
In my quest to figure out what children need, I found ways to empower them. It starts with letting them have a say-so over their bodies.
I have a problem with forcing children to have physical contact with anyone. It’s most evident around the holidays when relatives get together, that parents push their children to hug and kiss everyone in greeting. You may think that you're not forcing them - but you are their leader and they don't want to disobey you. If they felt like hugging and kissing they would probably do it without any prompting from you.
This is widely accepted behavior in a lot of families, but it teaches children that other people’s feelings are more important than theirs.
Let’s examine this for a minute. What message is it sending the children? What are the repercussions for making the choice for your child – who is good and who is bad? When parents override their kids’ feelings and tell them “Go ahead. Don’t be shy. Be nice…” The children can feel forced, learn that they don’t have a choice over their bodies and that it’s more important to please the older relatives.
It’s understandable if a child doesn’t want to give physical affection to everyone. Sometimes relatives are smelly, have bad breath, hug too hard, or kiss too wet!
Adults have the choice who they get close to – unless they have difficulty setting boundaries. It’s important to teach kids about boundaries. (That's what’s OK and what’s not OK with you from another person.) It’s good for them to set them with friends, family and especially, strangers.
If someone is never taught to have healthy boundaries, they can live their lives saying yes when they want to say no and enduring touch that they don’t want.
Children are supposed to be protected by their parents at all costs. In reality, some adults will take advantage of children’s innocence and vulnerability and molest them. This is most parents’ biggest fear.
How do you protect your child at all times? You can’t. That’s the truth. So, you warn them of “bad men” and “stranger danger.” You tell them, “Don’t talk to strangers and never approach someone in a car that you don’t know.”
But that’s not really how this pedophile thing works. They are not men dressed in black, hiding behind a bush ready to pounce on the kids. They look like normal people – nice people – who have immersed themselves in the child’s world. They can be neighbors, coaches, teachers, babysitters, camp counselors, tutors and close relatives. Most often they are someone the child knows and trusts, not a stranger.
What if we empower children to protect themselves, not to scare them about anyone new they meet, but to teach them to trust their gut. Everyone has feelings about new people, unfamiliar dogs or situations – it’s a survival instinct.
When these feelings are overridden by adults, the child may learn to ignore their gut, that it’s not to be trusted. Children want to please and will do what they are told 9 times out of 10. This is what makes them vulnerable to suggestions that aren’t in their best interest.
When you force a child to hug their smelly uncle every time they see him, they learn to shut down their feeling that this is gross and do it to please you. It may seem like a little thing, you know that Uncle Bob is no threat. But can you be sure? Even if you are sure, why are his feelings more important than your precious child's?
If you say “Go ahead and pet this dog” and your child shrinks away and says “No, I don’t want to” – would you make them?
Good or bad?
There’s an easy way to navigate physical affection without hurting anyone’s feelings. How about suggesting to blow them a kiss? Blowing kisses is adorable – and kids can do it from a safe distance without having their physical space invaded. How about a high-five or fist-bump? These are ways of greeting that don’t involve someone embracing you or getting in your face.
Grandma is leaving, and little Joey is hiding behind his mom’s legs. Grandma says, “Now come give me a kiss, Joey.” Joey petulantly says “No, I don’t want to. “ Mom doesn’t get mad or embarrassed, and cheerfully says “OK, how about if you blow Grandma a kiss goodbye?”
Of course, this is going to take some maturity on the part of the adults. A discussion will need to be had about trying something new in order to teach your child that they can choose who they have close contact with. Grandma needs to understand to not get offended or try to make Joey feel guilty if he is practicing this new skill. Most of the time Joey will probably run to Grandma and give her a big hug and kiss.
It’s imperative that caregivers of children overcome their own feelings of guilt or embarrassment in order to allow this personal freedom to be learned – and reinforced positively.
Giving children the permission to listen to their own inner voice, their feelings in their tummies, will have far reaching positive repercussions. They will gain inner strength. They will learn that their feelings matter and that it’s OK to say no when they feel pressured. This will be an invaluable lifelong resource.
The thing about a child molester is that, at first, they are practiced at not being creepy. They work to gain a child’s trust and love. They see a vulnerable child and become very important to them. At some point, they begin crossing boundaries – a little bit longer hug, a touch on the leg, saying “I like you so much.” They hold all the power. They take advantage of the young person’s admiration and trust.
The child will feel confused and think that it must be their fault that the adult is changing. Their trusted friend is now acting creepy.
When this is done with subtlety it’s hard for a child to determine just what is going on – even though it feels wrong to them. The empowered child can say “No, I have to go home now” or even, “Stop. I feel uncomfortable. I don’t want you to touch me.”
Ideally the child will then go to a trusted adult and tell them that they felt uncomfortable and need help staying away from this person.
How do you protect your children when they are not with you? By teaching them that their feelings matter and that they have power over their own bodies. They are allowed to say “NO” when they want to. Learning that they have a choice at home will strengthen a child’s reaction whenever someone tries to have affection that they don’t want.
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