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The Science of Boundaries: The Other “Talk” to Have with Your Kids

There’s a potentially life-changing conversation you probably weren’t planning on having with your child this week. But if she’s preschool age, you should start to have it now — and build on it as she grows. The conversation is about personal safety: boundaries, what kinds of touches are okay and from whom, and what exactly to do when a line is crossed. It may seem like a dicey subject, but the words around it are actually very simple, and the talk, empowering for both you and your child.

For a parenting topic with such high stakes, safety gets minimal airtime compared to things like time-outs and potty training. It could be because we don’t realize how widespread the problem of sexual abuse is or that we think we’re exempt. But statistically, that’s not a smart stance: research findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18, while other estimates are that roughly 320,400 children a year experience sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is also thought to be one of the most underreported crimes.

The numbers are disturbing. As a parent, the prospect of one of those children being our own verges on unbearable. But still, we put off talking about this with our kids, and when we do broach the subject, we often miss the mark. For example, parents typically warn their kids about strangers, but almost 90 percent of children who are victims of sexual abuse actually know the abuser; around 30 percent are family members (for kids under 6 years old, that’s 50 percent). Roughly 90 percent are male, but sex offenders don’t fit one profile — they’re a diverse group. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, they include troubled adolescents displaying impulsive, “developmentally transitory” behavior (that could be a friend or cousin playing unsupervised with younger kids), as well as the more headline-grabbing cases of pedophiles, who tend to have methodical, calculated plans. Either way, a person who causes a child harm can be not just someone she knows, but someone the whole family likes and trusts.

To figure out exactly what to say and how to keep my own kids (ages 5 and 2) safe, I went to Pattie Fitzgerald, a Los Angeles-based prevention educator. Fitzgerald founded the company Safely Ever After to offer safety training programs; she coaches parents not to spook their kids about “stranger danger,” but to teach them rules about how all adults and kids operate — from the ones they cross paths with casually to the ones you trust to take care of them daily. Even 2 and 3 year olds can begin to grasp basic ideas about personal space — for example, that everyone’s “bathing suit areas” are private, and that no one — not teachers, coaches, or family members — are above this rule. She recommends explicitly talking through exceptions: who exactly are the people that can touch or help you with private parts? Mom, dad, the doctor when mom or dad are in the room, grandma and grandpa when they’re giving you a bath or helping you on the potty … the specifics depend on your family, but the point is, the list is pretty short.

The message is not 'Beware!' but be <i>aware</i>.'

Don’t tell your child to look out for bad or dangerous people (because predators are often friendly and likable), she says, but instead refer to them as “tricky people,” so your child has a framework for spotting a problem:

“You know how there are rules in our family about our bodies and who can touch our private parts? Well tricky people think it’s okay to break those rules. We have to be aware of tricky people, and tell mom and dad about them right away. Even big, important grownups need to follow our rules.”

“Sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity,” says Fitzgerald. In the early years, when kids’ comprehension and abilities are still limited, she stresses, “the best way to protect your young child is to minimize the opportunity.” That means knowing how to spot red flags, vetting situations, asking a lot of questions, and trusting your gut as a parent when something doesn’t sit right (for example, a math tutor who insists you can never be present, or a team coach who blurs boundaries by requesting a lot of alone time with your child). She stresses that predators are looking for easy targets, not hard ones. This is why just being a visible parent can make a huge difference: show up at random times, poke your head into a lesson, ask questions before a play date until you’re satisfied. “The number one deterrent for a person who might cause harm is the possibility of getting caught,” says Fitzgerald. “So if they think you’re paying attention, they’re likely to drop it.”

A kid who is educated is a big deterrent — that’s known from firsthand interviews with sexual offenders themselves. One sex offender Fitzgerald interviewed said, “I would never bother with a kid who says ‘you shouldn’t touch me like that,’” because it’s clear that’s a prepared kid, who will be trouble if they’re pursued. Even better, she says, is the phrase: “You’re not supposed to touch my penis. My parents already told me that’s not okay.”

“You want people to know you’re that family,” she says. “The ones who’ve obviously had those talks and use anatomically correct language. You’re already one step ahead of them.”

Kids have a hard time thinking on their feet, so they need the words ready. Phrases like, “Stop touching me,” “You shouldn’t touch me like that,” or “My privates are private,” will do the trick (Fitzgerald has written books that give parents specific language). If kids need help in any situation when mom or dad is not there, they should go to a safe adult (a mom with a child is the best bet).

One of the most important points when it comes to these conversations is that they’re not one-shot deals. It’s not the big “talk” that you have with your child once and hope the information sticks. Kids learn through repetition, and their circumstances and cognitive powers are always changing; so their view of the world and how they integrate information will change as well. Take the tail end of the first conversation my husband and I had with my son (at the time, 3 years old) about the okay adults to touch his private parts. I had just explained that they included the doctor when dad or mom is in the room:

“So if an adult at school said they needed to touch your private area …”

“Not okay.”

“Right. Because …”

“My private parts are private.”

“Yup. But how about if that person said they were a doctor and your parents said it was okay …”

“Then it’s okay,” he said.

In other words, this was a work in progress. His 3-year-old brain could grasp black and white rules but was easily confused by a curveball. He’s 5 now, and we’ve revisited this conversation many times. I don’t scare or overwhelm him, but I talk about it casually and I teach him one concept at a time. Sometimes the topic comes up organically, other times I prompt it. My goal is to help him become fluent. He’s got a very good grasp on the ideas, but we keep troubleshooting. This conversation took place one day recently after I heard he had visited the nurse at school:

“So buddy, you know how we have rules about our bodies that everyone has to follow? What if the nurse said she needed to see your private parts?”

“No. Not okay.”

“But what if she said she’s a doctor?”

“Not okay, because mom or dad are not there.”

And then I changed the scenario.

“Exactly. What about, I’m just curious, let’s say you were at a play date and an older kid or a parent said they needed to see your private parts?”

“Definitely not okay.”

“What if that person wanted to show you his private parts?”

“Well that’s okay, because that’s his choice.”

My heart sank. But it’s just that we have more to talk about; this is an ongoing conversation, not a one-time lecture.

The point is not for us all to become helicopter parents or to shelter our kids — just to minimize the risks and keep the dialogue going with them over the years. “The message is not ‘Beware!’” says Fitzgerald, “but ‘be aware.’” Now that I’ve got the language in my back pocket and my kids are getting proficient, I feel empowered. My goal is that, when it comes to their bodies and their personal boundaries, my kids will grow up feeling empowered, too.

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