Each year, there are about 293,000 rapes reported. Almost half — HALF — of those victims are under the age of 18. As parents and caregivers, we are the first line of defense against child rape and sexual assault of children.
R-a-p-e. The first thing we have to do is stop being afraid of the word. By not saying it, by not wanting to think about it or talk about it, we give it power. Rape is terrifying and brutal, an act of domination and hate and brutality. It’s why women are afraid to walk to their cars at night or accept a drink at a college party. It’s why we hover over our children in parks and don’t let them go to restrooms alone. It scares us and makes us uncomfortable, so we don’t talk about it, especially with our children. Our children will find out about it though, because sexual violence and objectification are everywhere. They see it on television, it’s on the radio, they hear about it when a classmate gets assaulted at a kegger. Our refusal to acknowledge rape puts our children in jeopardy and ensures that they won’t talk to us about it when they should.
At my house, we started talking to our children about their “bathing suit areas” when they were about 4. We explained that those are their private areas and no one can touch them there except mommy and daddy to help them stay healthy and clean.
Paula Cox, education director for Midland Rape Crisis and Children’s Advocacy Center (MRCCAC), told me we were on the right track. Cox has advocated for the education, health and welfare of children for more than two decades. She said she believes talking to children about protecting themselves needs to start early, and that the conversation must be ongoing.
Cox and the MRCCAC team host almost 500 education sessions each year for West Texas students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. They teach children about “good touches,” kisses and hugs from parents and other touches that make children feel good, “bad touches,” slaps, kicks, unwanted touches, or touches that make a child feel bad, and “secret touches,” any kind of touch that someone is asked to keep secret. Good touches are just that, good. But bad touches and secret touches, those are not okay, and children need to tell someone if these happen
“Kids have to be told they have permission to tell. We get a lot of feedback from kids in these sessions, that they are afraid to tell their parents because it might make them mad or scare them, or they think they are going to get into trouble,” Cox said. “What we have to tell our children is, ‘I will be here to protect you, you need to tell me.’ ”
Cox stressed that parents should keep conversations age appropriate, making the discussions part of an overall safety plan, similar to a “what would you do if we got separated” talk before a family went to the mall. The point is to educate children and help them know what to do, not scare them.
After elementary school, the dynamics change for lots of our kiddos. Their social circles and exposure grows exponentially. Classes are bigger, schools are larger. They begin playing sports and participating in after-school activities. There is lots of pressure to fit in and be popular. Cox said at this stage, parents still need to be talking to children about their bodies and boundaries. They should also be focusing on building self-esteem in children and helping them develop strong, healthy relationships. Having good self-esteem helps bully-proof our kids and makes them less susceptible to unhealthy friendships and relationships.
This is also a critical time for teaching our children communication skills. Look for “teachable moments” with your kids. If they see something on television, ask them what they think about it, ask them how they would handle it. Help your children decide what their boundaries are and how to communicate them to others.
I am also going to recommend the Mean Mom parenting strategy. I am a Mean Mom, my mentor moms are Mean Moms, and so far it has been a pretty effective strategy. Mean Moms just say no – no to sleepovers before sixth grade, no to playdates in people’s homes if they don’t know the parents, no to unsupervised time in public parks and other play places, no to car dating and no to one-on-one dating before 16. Children are not always as ready for situations as they think they are, so it’s up to us to keep our children safe. Period. We have to get over this desire to be “friends” with our kids. They are not our equals and it us up to us to lead them, care for them and teach them right from wrong. I had a Mean Mom and a Scary Dad. I didn’t get to spend the night with anyone until I was invited to my first slumber party in the fifth grade. My Mean Mom was the first one there the next morning, before we had even gotten to have our Pillsbury orange rolls. And if you have never seen a dad sitting in a lawn chair with a shotgun waiting for his daughter to return home from a date, well, you have no idea how seriously some parents take their parenting.
Dating has gotten to be a downright scary proposition, and not just because lots of dads are armed. According to US News & World Report, nearly 20 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been sexually assaulted. Further research has found about 20 percent of women are victimized by sexual assault in college. Our kids need to date with care. Cox said there are lots of good online resources for safer dating. Some suggestions include dating someone a person has been friends with beforehand and group dating before spending time alone with someone. Go to public places and always carry a charged cell phone. Know the warning signs of a “bad guy.”
Cox also recommended that parents become familiar with social media sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, with texting and smartphone apps. She advocates being aware of what children are saying, posting and watching online. Parents need to know what’s out there and what kids have access to.
Back in the day, my Scary Dad only gave me one piece of advice when it came to dating – always carry a quarter. “You can always call me. No matter what happens, no matter where you are, no matter what time it is, I will come get you.” And he meant it. That didn’t mean there wouldn’t be repercussions, but I always knew I had people who cared about me and who would do anything to protect me.
But sometimes, doing everything we can to protect our children is not enough. That’s why lifelong, open dialogue with your children is so important. If you tell your child they can tell you anything, that you will protect them and love them no matter what, you have to live up to it.
“If something does happen,” Cox said, “we can get you help.”
Cox urges parents to visit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN has the most up-to-date statistics, resources and inspirational survivor stories. RAINN also has a 24-hour national hotline at (800) 656 HOPE as well as live chat.
Cox recommends that victims seek counseling.
“Having a neutral person to talk to is an important part of the healing process,” she said. “We want to help people move forward with their lives, to turn victims into survivors.”
As parents, we have to educate ourselves and our children, we have to be ready to advocate and stand up for them every day. We need to help each other, too. Visit my Pinterest file to see more resources for child safety, smart dating and sexual assault. Join the conversation on my Facebook page to get and share tips for keeping kids safe!