There’s a seemingly endless amount of things we need to prep our kids for before sending them out into the world (or at least off to school) for the first time. And the truth is, teaching them how to wipe their own butts, pick up after themselves, and be kind to others is just the beginning.
There are other not-so-obvious skills that you won’t find on the back of any school checklist — and some of them might just be the most important. Case in point: Teaching our kids about body safety, consent, and boundaries, as well as what to do if someone doesn’t respect them.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Just the idea of bringing up that topic to a preschooler is pretty terrifying. Believe me, I get it. It’s uncharted territory, and forces us to face the very difficult reality that things like childhood sexual abuse exists. We don’t want to say the wrong thing and scare them, by making them think that the world around them is not a safe place. But the reality is, as much as we might think that harm could never come to our children, the statistics paint a very different story.
According to The Advocacy Center, an estimated 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. In fact, the vast majority of reported sexual assaults in this country (approximately 70 percent) involve children who are 17 and younger. Child sexual abuse advocate, founder, and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, Lauren Book, shares the good news that when children are taught about boundaries and are empowered about their own bodies, they are less likely to be victimized. In fact, Book tells Babble that, “95 percent of sexual abuse is actually preventable with education and awareness.” (Whoa.)
So, what can parents do specifically to help keep their kids safe? It all comes down to having open, honest conversations about consent and safety in everyday situations. And, yes, this includes with people their children already know and trust. The State of California’s Department of Justice reports that more than 90 percent of sexual abuse is committed by someone familiar to the child, and abusers are often the people we’d least expect. Book, for one, was a victim of sexual abuse for six years at the hands of her female, live-in nanny. It might not be easy to have these conversations, but the following five steps can help ensure that you’re teaching your preschooler what they need to know to keep them safe.
1. Teach them proper names for their private parts.
Talking about private parts with children can feel super uncomfortable, which is why many parents resort to using cutesy names — or avoiding the discussion all together. However, Book says that teaching children the proper names for their private parts is imperative, not only because children who know the proper names of their body parts will be better able to disclose abuse, but also because not talking about it teaches them private parts are taboo or shameful.
“When you taught your baby all of their body parts, you pointed to your eyes and said ‘eyes’ or ‘ears’ or ‘nose’ or ‘chin.’ But we usually don’t give them names for their private parts,” Book tells Babble. “So inherently, they think ‘something must not be right about these parts that I know that I have, but I’m not supposed to talk about it.'”
Book says all children need to know not only what their private parts are, and what they are called, but that they are off-limits. They need to understand that nobody should be looking at them or touching them, unless they’re hurt or need help. If somebody does, they need to immediately tell mom or dad (or another trusted adult) about it.
One other important detail that parents overlook about the “private parts” talk? Mouths should also be considered a private part.
“Parents should tell their kids that nobody should be putting anything into their mouths, except for the dentist,” Book says. “And who is with you when you’re at the dentist? Mommy or Daddy, [so it’s OK].”
2. Help them identify “safe” vs. “unsafe” touches.
Many parents avoid discussing sexual abuse with their kids because they think it’ll scare them. But the best bet, according to Book, is to encourage children to make the distinction between “safe” and “unsafe” touches — particularly because “unsafe” touches don’t always feel “bad” or “wrong,” particularly in the early stages of abuse when predators are still grooming their victims.
“Parents can talk to children about safe vs. unsafe, and identify ‘what is a safe touch?’ Maybe for one child it’s braiding her hair, while for another, it’s getting his back scratched,” Book tells Babble. “Those are safe touches that make you feel loved, happy, excited. And then you can talk about unsafe feelings, [asking] ‘how does that make you feel? What’s an example of an unsafe touch to you?'”
This doesn’t have to be a formal conversation. Having some nice cuddle time with your little one? That could be a good time to point out how happy and safe it feels. Did your child throw a tantrum and try to hit or bite you (or maybe another child tried to hit or bite them)? That could be a good time to explain how that felt unsafe and hurtful.
3. Encourage them to speak up and ask for help.
Recognizing the difference between safe and unsafe touches is the first step, but what they should do if someone touches them in an unsafe way? According to Book, children should be encouraged to use their loud “I Mean Business” voices and say, “Stop, that’s not safe!” And then, your child should absolutely tell you what happened.
“It’s about teaching children that there are limits,” Book tells Babble. “If something happens that makes you feel uncomfortable, I want you to come tell me.”
4. Let them know that they don’t have to keep secrets that make them uncomfortable.
For a lot of parents, teaching children to be respectful and to avoid things like “tattle-telling” is high on the list of things we want our kids to learn. But Jayneen Sanders, sexual abuse advocate and author of a number of books like, Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept and My Body! What I Say Goes!, notes that we should also make sure children know that there are certain times when they should absolutely tattle.
“Secrets are the currency predators deal in,” Sanders tells Babble. “If a child has been educated to tell secrets that make them feel bad or uncomfortable to an adult they trust, then the [abuse can’t continue.] By educating children to tell, we empower them.”
Abusers specifically look for children who they know will keep the truth of what is happening under wraps. Sanders explains:
“Abusers often test a child’s ability to keep a secret on a number of occasions before sexual abuse begins, perhaps by saying, ‘Here is a special lolly for you but don’t tell your parents I gave it to you. It can be our little secret.’ If the child keeps that secret, than the abuser is off to a good start.”
That doesn’t mean of course, that parents should never expect their kids to keep certain details to themselves. While Sanders recommends that parents enforce a “no secrets” policy in the home, she says that “happy surprises” (like what they’re giving their friend as a birthday gift, let’s say) are totally fine.
“Children need to know they don’t always have to do what adults or older teenagers say,” Sanders tells Babble. “If the secret being feels wrong, then it is wrong — and there are no exceptions.”
5. Let them know that you will always believe them.
As parents, we’d all like to think that our children believe they can tell us anything. But how often do we make sure that assumption is correct? Ensuring that children feel comfortable having open communication with their parents — and that they can say anything without having their fears or concerns downplayed or ignored — is perhaps the most important thing parents can do to keep their children safe.
“What parents need to understand is they should never let their fear of sexual abuse put their kids at risk,” Sanders tells Babble. “It can happen, and it does. But so many survivors have said to me, ‘If only I’d known it was wrong from the first inappropriate touch,’ or, ‘If only someone had believed me, it could have been so different.’”
The thought that awful things could happen to our children is probably the most difficult part of parenting. And honestly, sometimes it’s hard to know whether we are doing the “right” things to keep our children safe. But when it comes to body safety and abuse-prevention, there are many things that can help mitigate the risk that all children face. And it’s never too early, or too late, to start doing them.