Times have changed, and it’s easier to inform and educate our children about things that may have embarrassed our parents and grandparents. One of the most important things we can do for our children is to remove shame from the discussion of our bodies. When we do that, we empower our children to speak up instead of shaming them into silence.
Empowerment is about taking all the things that are beautiful about being a toddler or preschooler and embracing them. It’s about trusting your gut, using your eyes, and giving your child words to properly describe his or her world in a safe and consistent environment. Following are some lessons to help your child—and you—do just that.
Lesson #1: Use Correct Names for Body Parts
One of the easiest and best things you can do is teach your toddler the correct names of body parts. Growing up in past generations, we thought that they were “loaded” words, so we dumbed down our body parts and minimized their importance by using words like wee-wee or hoo-hoo. But we need to remember that our bodies should never be minimized and that these biological terms are correct and accurate. Remember, teaching the proper names of body parts does not mean that you should talk about sex with your preschool-aged child. Toddlers and preschoolers are way too young for any discussion of sex. With this age group, we are talking about body parts, not sexuality. Once your child has the right names for body parts, he or she may start asking questions. Embrace these questions, and answer them as honestly and age-appropriately as you can. Once you teach the proper names of parts and encourage questions, your child will probably come to you when he sees bumps, marks, or other things on his body that he didn’t notice before.For parents of an older generation, it can be jarring to hear a little girl use the word vagina when talking about her body, or a boy using the word penis. For the child who is introduced to the proper terminology, it’s not a loaded word. It has nothing to do with sex, purity, virginity, morality, or guilt. So stop being embarrassed. As your child already knows, it’s no big deal.
Lesson #2: Teach Your Child to Be Self-Sufficient in the Bathroom
As soon as your child starts using the toilet, begin teaching the proper way to wipe—especially with girls, who can develop infections if they don’t wipe “front to back.” Boys may be a little more reticent—on the whole, they tend to be less fussy about cleanliness than girls are. But if you encourage your child to wipe correctly and clean the private area well, you will give your child (and yourself) a whole new level of independence. What does this have to do with abuse? A common grooming technique for predators of young children is to gain the trust of a child enough to be able to wipe him or her after going to the bathroom. It’s easy access that can quickly cross over into sexualized behavior. The sooner your child is independent, the less likely that a predator (who in these cases is usually a trusted family member) will have access to the child in the bathroom.
Lesson #3: Follow the “No Secrets” Rule
Kids, especially preschool-aged children, love the concept of secrets. It’s their way of creating a child-centric world that is full of fantasy, play, and a child’s sense of power. The problem is this: Secrets are a predator’s pal. This is one of the most important things you can teach your toddler or preschooler. There is a way to stop secrets and protect all of the children involved. It starts when your child is a toddler, with the “no secrets” rule. Simply tell your child that you live in a house full of love—and people who love each other do not keep secrets. I promise you, your three-year-old
won’t be confused or push back. Your child will be aware and have her guard up when an adult triesto create or keep secrets with her. She will know that something is wrong and that adults never ask children to keep secrets. Your child will also have the tools and awareness to be able to come to you directly when an adult wants to keep secrets.
Lesson #4: Don’t Force Hugging and Kissing
As a child, I hated hugging old men. It wasn’t because I thought they were creepy or had a bad experience with an older man when I was a young child. My reason was pretty simplistic: I hated the way I smelled afterward. But I was always forced to hug these men anyway. My parents never meant any harm. They just didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and thought that these hugs were totally harmless. But the lesson I learned was far more insidious. In my little mind, I learned that when an adult wanted to touch me in a way I didn’t like, I had to submit. If I didn’t, I would hurt their feelings and disappoint my parents. Do not force your child to hug or kiss anyone. Hugging and kissing adults are not signs of respect. They are not signs of love when the child is forced or unwilling. And when you tell your child that adults don’t have to respect his or her body boundaries, you are doing the predators’ work for them. Let your child politely say no. If children learn that their space and body are respected, they are far more likely to understand and appreciate proper boundaries with all adults. What do you do to replace the unwanted hug? Teach the handshake. Enforce the rule of eye contact and the smile. Don’t want to deal with germs? Teach your child to say, “Very nice to see (or meet) you,” and then tell the adult that your child is a petri dish of germs from school and that you don’t want to share any of the local viruses. The adult will gush over your polite child and thank you for your consideration, and everyone will win. Even a “fist bump” with eye contact and a smile is a great and respectful way for a young child to greet an adult, especially if your kid has the sniffles or its flu season.Lesson #5: Embrace the Tattletale
If there was one thing you could do right now that would empower our nation’s kids, help prevent sexual abuse, hinder bullies, put criminals behind bars, and foster corporate and organizational transparency, you would do it, right? Well, you know how to do that? We have to stop punishing our tattletales. When toddlers or preschoolers come to you and say, “He called me a name,” “She won’t share,” “He’s crying,” “They were hitting,” they need your help to solve a problem. It is our job as parents to get to the root of the problem. We can use this teachable moment to show our children how to solve problems so the kids can get back to the business of playing. The tattlers are setting the bar for their peers. They are doing something else as well: They are being transparent about it. But when we punish tattletales, we are teaching our children to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. We are teaching them that reporting wrongdoing is just as bad as committing the crime. And when we do that, we foster cover-up and enable predatory behavior and all other kinds of wrongdoing. We need to start thinking about tattling in a different way: It’s the closest thing that children have to “mandatory reporting.”
If you want your toddler or preschooler to be comfortable telling you about things, you can’t punish the child for reporting the bad things he or she sees and hears. In fact, if you want to foster communication with your growing child, you need to embrace these tattletale moments. Use them to help your child learn to solve problems, especially if the child is tattling in order to seek attention. Continually reassure your child that being transparent and truthful is an admirable quality. After all, honesty and refusal to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing are qualities that will keep your child safer from grooming, predators, and bullying, and will benefit him or her throughout life.
The preschool years are a magical time. You will never laugh so much, smile so often, and want to bang your head against the wall—all within a two-hour period—as you will with your toddler. Even though you may feel like you have no control over this small bundle of energy, it takes only a few small, simple changes to ensure his or her safety.
A former journalist, educator, and public relations professional, Joelle Casteix has taken her own experience as a victim of child sex crimes and devoted her career to exposing abuse, advocating on behalf of survivors, and spreading abuse prevention strategies for parents and communities. She has presented to hundreds of audiences all over the world, including on the TEDx stage, on subjects such as abuse prevention, victim outreach, victims’ rights in the civil justice system, and parenting safer children. She is a regular speaker for the National Center for Victims of Crime, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma and The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Casteix’s blog, The Worthy Adversary, is one of the leading sources for information and commentary on child sexual abuse prevention and exposure. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and completed graduate work in education at the University of Colorado, Denver. A wanna-be ski bum, she lives in southern California with her husband and young son.