How to talk to Our Children about Personal Safety

Here are signs to protect our children from danger:
In 95% of cases, the molester’s not a stranger. He’s someone you know and respect. He’s disarming. He is drawn to children. And he’s awfully charming.

This is a handy little jingle for parents to keep in mind, but even though it’s short, my rhyme is not for little children. In order to adequately prepare our children, however, first we need to be aware of the red flags ourselves. Then we simply need to schedule an “annual check-up” time to clearly and calmly bring up the subject of personal safety with our children.

What would be a good day each year on the Jewish calendar for us to easily remember to discuss this safety topic with our children? It’s useful to pick a particular day that comes once a year, so we’ll be more apt not to forget to do it. (We don’t want to discuss it too often, as we do not want to instill excessive fear in them, but we do want them to remain cautious.) Holidays that require substantial preparation are not appropriate times for such a discussion, but how about Lag B’Omer? The warm weather has arrived, so it could be a good time to remember to have a yearly frank, yet upbeat conversation about this important safety issue – maybe even right along with reminders about fire safety rules.

But if Lag B’Omer has long since gone by, and we have failed to have a prevention education with our children, it is essential for parents to cover this topic with their children before they have gone off to camp.

Parents can have a safety talk about the prevention of molestation with children as young as three, with age-appropriate adjustments being made gradually as maturity and understanding grows, year by year. We do this just as we would discuss any other safety hazard, with some increased detail for our older children.

We can start off by telling our three year olds that nobody should ever touch them in the areas that are covered by a bathing suit. The only exceptions would be a parent or a doctor, who may need to check those areas for health reasons and put cream on a rash in those private areas. If anybody wants to touch them there at any other time, for any other reason, they should say “no” to that person, even if that person is a family member, babysitter or counselor. And if somebody has already touched them in their private areas, they should tell you about it. We can tell them that if anybody ever touches them in a way that doesn’t feel right, they can ask the person to stop, try to get away as fast as they can, and tell you about it afterwards.

Another conversation, at age four, could remind the child of the basics that were discussed the previous year and add that family members may include older brothers, uncles, a step-father, grandfathers, and cousins. Neighbors and family friends may not touch the areas that need to be covered by a bathing suit either. And not only should nobody touch their private parts – nobody should touch any part of their body in any way that doesn’t feel right. If a touch feels strange to them, and they are not sure if it is wrong or right, they should come and ask us about it. We really want to know. Even if they feel silly asking us about it, we very much want them to ask us. We can explain that there are good touches and bad touches. And we can encourage them to ask us about any touching that they are not sure about as well.

At age five, we can tell them that they will probably have some questions for us after we talk with them about personal safety, and we hope they will feel comfortable to ask us their questions at any time. Too much information is overwhelming to a child, so we want to try to keep each annual conversation about this topic, short and simple. We can remind them annually that if anybody ever tries to touch them in a way that feels scary or wrong, even if it’s just a soft, stroking of their arms, some tickling, or picking them up, they can tell the person doing it to stop, and then they can let us know about it.

We can also add on, at whatever age we feel it’s appropriate, that nobody should ask them to touch or look at their private parts either. And every year there can be a reminder of this safety rule as well. We can ask them, “What if someone wanted to touch you and said to keep it a secret?” And wait for their responses. We can remind them that secrets like that are bad and dangerous, and those are secrets that they need to tell us.

Another important point that could be added one year would be that somebody who has been treating them nicely for awhile by giving them extra attention, treats, money, or gifts, may gradually or quite suddenly start acting in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. We can explain that this could be very confusing, as a child might feel that if the person has been so nice to them, that they should go along with whatever confusing touches the person may have started giving them. It’s very helpful to explain the typical “grooming” process in this way, so the growing child will at least be familiar with this possibility. With this awareness, a child or teen is much more apt to respond to inappropriate touching as an unacceptable real danger if, G-d forbid, his safety is ever jeopardized in this way.

As the children grow older, even through their teens, we can annually add to their basic training that if anybody ever asks them to watch or do things that feel scary or wrong, we hope that they will not feel embarrassed to tell us. We can let them know that it’s best to tell us right away, but even if they didn’t tell us right away, whenever they do tell us, we still very much want to hear about it because if something disturbing or frightening may have happened to them,it was not their fault. This needs to be emphasized, calmly and clearly, once a year.

It would also be helpful to explain to an older child that confusing touches can lead to holding on for a long time to confusing feelings. Some children may have even enjoyed certain aspects of improper interactions, like the extra attention it brings, and they do not need to feel ashamed of having this mixture of feelings. The best thing for their neshamas, however, is to not keep any kind of confusing feelings locked up within them. Great relief can come from talking about any disturbing secrets they may have with someone they feel they can trust. We need to reassure them that such burdens don’t have to be carried by them alone. We can also let them know that if they ever feel that they have something to share that they do not feel they can tell us, we can help them find an appropriate professional with whom they can speak.

In age-appropriate ways, as our children grow, we need to reaffirm to them on a yearly basis that victims of abuse are not responsible for the abuse. They need to tell an adult they trust about what happened, and continue telling until someone takes action to stop it.

By teaching our children how to guard the precious bodies that Hashem has given to them, we will not be abdicating our responsibility to them. It is still our responsibility to protect them, but this annual training will make it that much more possible for us to fulfill our parental obligations. In helping to protect our children from molestation, we are guarding not only their vulnerable bodies, we are also shielding their innocent souls.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization,Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.

Originally published in the Jewish Press on Jun 28 2010

4 comments on “How to talk to Our Children about Personal Safety

  1. I would have very strong issues with any adult who persists in any behavior toward a child despite the parent’s opposition. This goes even beyond touching (although that’s the most critical) to such other behaviors as giving food items without permission and/or allowing the watching of a PG-13 movie.

    I can remember reading in one of the books in the Kids Speak series by Chaim Walder a story about how a girl was almost tickled to death. Seriously, the tickler didn’t stop and the child lost consciousness, finally an ambulance had to be called to take her to the emergency room.

    This adult has to be told firmly that unapproved behaviors toward someone else’s child are totally unacceptable. What would happen if a very nut-allergic child was given a candy bar containing nuts? That child could go into anaphylactic shock and even die if someone didn’t have an epi-pen handy. People have different standards for their kids, and children could have rare health conditions, how does anyone know?

  2. LC, you are bringing up an important question, I don’t really have an answer, but encourage you to pursue the discussion with members of the community who are involved in these issues. Tickling can become inappropriate while masked by a seemingly ordinary form of horseplay. The fact that the grownup does not respond is a problem.

  3. I just wanted to raise a tangential question – as far as “no one should touch you in a way you don’t like”, how would you address the issue of a grown-up relative who thinks tickling is funny and won’t stop when the child (who hates it) says STOP? We dealt with this a while back, and even my pointing out how this scenario might impact child’s response to anything molestation-related ever happening was not useful. I just got an insulted “I would never do anything like that.”

    Maybe that relative wouldn’t, but the impact on the child from one scenario (grownups don’t stop, why bother complaining) might well color their response to the blatantly inappropriate.

  4. Thanks for a very practical and important post. One point regarding grooming, the would-be molestor is not always taking the positive approach with gifts, etc.; sometimes they use threats and shaming to convince their victim to keep quiet. They might tell a child that noone will believe him, or people will be angry at him if he tries to tell. And unfortunately that may be correct, if the child tells the wrong person who is not willing to hear the truth. There has been some consciousness raising targeted at the likely recipients of a child’s confession, hopefully teaching them to take the report seriously and never embarrass or further victimize the child by accusing him/her of lying.

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