This is a mixed bag of tips intended to help kids avoid attack, abuse or getting lost. This is not intended as an exhaustive list. But rather as some trigger points to stimulate a change in possibly well-intended, but overly-cautious or conservative care-giver thinking.
Because of our collective social media-induced ADD, let me cut to the chase. So, in no particular order: Rape or sexual abuse is not “sex”- so don’t categorise it as sex when discussing it with your children. It’s a violent act of assault, often with deadly consequences. Girls and boys need to understand what it is and that it can happen to them.
We need to get over ourselves and stop using euphemisms. It’s not a “willy” or a “vajayjay”. It’s a penis or a vagina. We know that speaking regular mother tongue language to babies and children helps them develop a good vocabulary early in life. So cut the baby talk and diminutives.
Children today are not like children were even fifteen years ago. They are digital natives and are exposed (whether we like it or not) to life in all its beauty and ugliness, way ahead of when we were. Many are playing with and learning from tablet devices at two years of age.
Every day we delay educating a child on sexual and other well-being matters, is another day closer to that child being exploited or abused due to their naiveté. If your child is watching National Geographic, Animal Planet, documentaries or educational DVDs, they will see animals mating. Everything in nature has a reproductive process. You can use flowers, plants, trees and pollination as simple, sensible explanations for reproduction.
Protect your child from explicit Internet porn pop-ups by installing Net Nanny or other software on the consumption devices they use. Better your child hears facts from you than myths from strangers or peers.
Prepare your facial expression and body language, well in advance. If you wince or flinch when asked a straight question about sexuality, the message is, “this must be secret – or dirty”. We fail the kid. When talking about sensitive topics, don’t let your voice change or express stress. Remember that tone and manner are part of non-verbal communication. It’s normal discussion. So keep it normal.
Our children can be taught at a very early age that their body is their private space. We need to equip them in advance with strategies in case that little body is inappropriately touched or invaded. Teach them to say loudly, “inappropriate touch!” or “no touching!”, if they feel someone is behaving abnormally.
Children don’t deal well with ambiguity (mixed messages) about sex or life. We need to be simple and clear.Children are capable of what Dr Natalie Solomon, a wonderful SA child psychologist, calls, “magical thinking”. Example: a peer dies. Don’t say, “they’ve passed on,” or “they’ve gone to heaven” I heard a little guy (at a memorial service) ask his mum, “then where’s heaven?” She pointed to the sky. “How high up in the sky?” A long way. “When will he be back?” Oops. No. Children are pretty literal. They can understand dead. They’ve seen a dead beetle, a bird, perhaps the family pet. That’s dead. Explain it as a very normal part of life. Just like crying and mourning those losses is. Magical thinking is like a video game. People have “new lives”. Avatars. They come back from the dead. They revive. That’s very confusing. Our kids have grown up with virtual reality games and 3D movies. I’ve been asked several times, “is this real?” – when it’s been special effects generated.
Don’t wait for your child to start asking questions about sexuality, abuse, rape, homosexuality, cross-dressing or a host of other topics. Make these an appropriate, well-timed and normal part of your conversation. That avoids them becoming embarrassing. We can’t always protect children from the sometimes ugly face of life. We can only prepare them for it. We’re not doing them favours by misguidedly “preserving their innocence” or over-protecting them. That simply puts them at risk.
Talking to children about sexual matters is not going to lead to experimentation or early sexual behaviour. The opposite is proven to be the case. We don’t need to get into graphic explanations of biological processes (like menstruation for example). Keep the child’s age, mental development, general-knowledge, social awareness and so on in mind. As with most things, we all acquire a fuller understanding over time.
It doesn’t have to be big-bang, all at once. I’ve told my little guy, “if someone comes along and says, ‘Clive has asked me to collect you,’ (for example) you simply say, “No – that’s not true. He would have told me.” Teach the kid to shout very loudly, “Help, help! This person is trying to take me away!” if the person becomes physical or persists. Teach them to kick, fight and scream like crazy, if necessary. Always tell your kids about collection plans. Route messages through the pre-school, school teacher, sports coach or play-date supervisor about collection arrangements. There must be no loose ends.
Can your child easily repeat your mobile number? I made a tune of mine. It helps to repeat it with a rhythm, for little people to remember.
Have you got a current, straight on, full-face picture of your child or children? If not, take it now. If they go missing, it makes publicising the sorry fact a wee bit easier. Teach your kid what to do if she or he becomes separated from you in a store, shopping mall or outdoor event. We’ve all had those heart-stopping, missing kid moments. Have you got a future prevention strategy in place? No? Do it now.
Tell your children never to accept lifts. If cars pull up close to them or pace them on a sidewalk, let them appeal to the nearest adult for help, or run away to safety. They can’t and won’t do these things unless we’ve discussed them and suggested responses, in advance. Reinforce those coping strategies every now and again. Make a “superhero” survival game of it. They’ll get that. If at even 5 years of age, our kids are not equipped to cry foul when threatened, we have failed to equip them with the necessary defences. Do it now and prevent tears later.
There is some wonderful literature available on age-appropriate, child sex awareness and broader education. The Jozikids blog is a mine of useful information. So is google. So is amazon.com. Use all the resources at your disposal.
Final thought: What is forbidden or mysterious is always appealing. Walter Bagshot (pronounced Bad-jit) a former editor of the Economist in the UK, famously said, “do not let in daylight upon magic”. With sexuality and safety for children, the opposite must be true. Let in the daylight. Clarify. Explain. Remove the veil of mystery.
Thanks for your time. I welcome your feedback, comments, suggestion or constructive criticism. Clive Simpkins is a marketing and communications strategist, author and care-giver to an enquiring, high-maintenance and much loved 10 year-old.