A breaking story today has kept my phone ringing off the hook: A southern California third grader has been accused of sexually assaulting a classmate numerous times during the past year. School administrators only found out about it when other students at an after-school program reported what they saw. (Kudos to those kids!)
Tragic? Yes. Horrifying? Yes.
But fear, panic and over-reaction are not how to prevent this kind of abuse.
Remember: third graders know little to nothing about sex. For the victim in this case, authorities believe that he didn’t report because he didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what was happening to him.
So, what do you do?
You go back to the four ways to protect your preschooler from abuse. Number 3 is the relevant lesson here:
3) Looking and touching
The bathtub is a good time to teach this lesson. Tell children that no one is to touch their private body parts and they are to never touch anyone else’s. Tell them that no one is to take pictures of them when they have no clothes on. Don’t use a tone of fear in the discussion – If you approach this the same way as you approach the rules of crossing the street or sharing toys, your child will not be scared or threatened.
As your children get older, you can tell them that even if what is happening feels good, they need to tell mom or dad right away.
I just had this discussion with my second grader this afternoon. I asked him what he would do if someone—an adult or another classmate—touched him or wanted my son to touch them. He said he would say “NO!” and go and tell mom.
When I asked him what he would do if he really liked that person, he hesitated.
I told him, “If anyone touches your penis or bottom or touches you in any way that makes you feel icky, come and tell mom. It’s not your job to worry about what the other person thinks about you or their feelings. It’s mom’s job to take care of you. And mom will never be mad at you for it. Remember, sometimes even when things feel good, they are still bad and make you feel bad afterward—like eating too much Halloween candy. So just tell mom and let mom solve the problem for you.”
He nodded, and then asked if he could play outside today. There was no belabored discussion; I didn’t nag (one of my big faults); and I didn’t act in a way that scared him.
Later he asked me why I brought up the conversation. I told him that I want to help him be strong and safe.
Is this method 100% fool-proof? No. But it could have empowered the victim in Riverside to tell his parents or teachers about what was happening to him. And it was also possibly the reason that the other students reported.
By reporting, the other children did two important things: 1) they stopped the abuse so that the victim can get help and care, and 2) they stopped a child who most probably would have become a repeat molester.
That’s some pretty powerful stuff that we can all take to heart.