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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Grandma Wants a Hug – Teachable Moment

Parenting Safe Children ImageThe holidays are a time of greetings and affection, so it’s particularly important to remember that children and teens are safer when they get to choose when and with whom to show affection.

If a family member or friend wants to greet your child with a hug or kiss, and your child does not want to, then seize this teachable moment and stand up for your child by modeling healthy boundaries and communicating clearly.

Grandma: “Oh, it’s so good to see you. Give grandma a hug.”

Mom or Dad: “I know you’re a hugger, Mom, but we’ve taught Darius that he gets to choose when he shows affection and it looks like he doesn’t want to hug right now. Darius, is there another way you'd like to greet grandma besides hugging her."

I know how natural it is for parents and grandparents to want to shower their children and grandchildren with hugs and kisses, but giving children a choice about physical affection teaches that consent matters.

It is never a child’s job to manage the feelings of other people. For more on this topic, check out the Parenting Safe Children December 16 post on Facebook.

When Children Play – a Teachable Moment

Parenting Safe Children - ImageYou’ve just eaten a big meal and the children, of all different ages, are restless. They want to go play while the adults linger over coffee. What kind of supervision is required to ensure everyone’s safety?

Children can get into scenarios while playing which can be compromising. Remind kids to keep the doors open and review body-safety practices with them. Also let the kids know to come ask if they need anything and let them know that you’ll be in to check on them from time to time.

As children go off to play, remind both the children and the adults about your family’s four body-safety practices:

  • Everyone plays with their clothes on.
  • No one touches private parts.
  • We don’t keep secrets.
  • If you feel unsafe in any way, come tell a trusted adult.
Pay particular attention to much older children who are playing with much younger children—i.e., an age difference of four or more years. Consider these scenarios between Justin (14 years old) and Jaime (6 years old), and note the behaviors of potential or actual concern:
  • Jaime repeatedly pulls Justin out of the group of kids and disappears with him. (teen isolating a child from larger group)
  • Justin squeezes Jaime’s buttocks several times. (sexualized teasing)
  • Justin squeezes Jaime’s buttocks when Jaime has asked him to stop. (poor boundaries)
  • Justin shows Jaime an adult porn magazine. (sexually harmful behavior)
  • Justin swears Jaime to secrecy about a special place in the basement. (secrecy)
Children need supervision regardless of the setting. Listen to your intuition and speak up if you feel uncomfortable. By communicating safety practices in front of other adults, you are modeling prevention and opening the door for conversation.

Air Travel for the Holidays – Teachable Moment

Whether you are traveling over the holidays or sometime in 2017, here are some body-safety conversation tips for talking with your children about airport security, x-ray machines, and pat downs.
Parenting Safe Children Image

  1. Talk with children about airport and airplane rules. With young children (< age 8), have this conversation on the way to the airport. With older children (ages 8+), you can have the conversation further in advance if you wish. Language for young children: People who work at airports have rules we must follow just like at home, school, and other places. These rules keep everyone safe.
  2. Compare airport safety to other kinds of safety. Language for young children: Just like you have to sit in your car seat when we drive or wear a helmet when you ride your bike, there are certain rules at the airport. To make the topic of safety less scary, weave in general safety expectations.
    Language for young children: On the plane, we stay in our seats unless we are using the toilet. We keep our seat belt on at all times.
  3. Explain to children what to expect. Language for young children: We’ll check our bags and then we’ll stand in a line where we have to take off our shoes, jackets and belts. Then we’ll go through a metal detector or x-ray machine. In addition, a person who works at the airport and wears a uniform may have to touch our bodies over our clothes to make sure we are safe to get on the airplane.
  4. Answer questions directly and simply. Provide more details if your children are older and ask more questions. Language for young children: Because no one is allowed to take a knife or scissors or nail clippers on airplanes, and sometimes people forget to leave them home.
  5. If a pat down is requested, use this as a teachable moment to assert the body-safety rule on touching private parts. Language for young children: We've talked about body-safety rules and you know that no one is allowed to touch the private areas of your body except when the doctor needs to examine you and Mom or Dad is in the room with you. Well, this is another exception. The airport person may need to touch your body over your clothes. This is the only time someone can do this at the airport and I will be with you.
As always, try to make prevention fun. You might play a “what if game” to reinforce body safety at the airport, while including other situations as well.
  • What if someone else in the airport tried to touch your body—what would you say and do?
  • What if your babysitter wanted you to keep a secret—what would you say and do?
  • What if a kid at school wanted to look at your private parts in the bathroom—what would you say and do?
The answer to all of these questions is the same:
  1. Say “NO!”
  2. Go tell a trusted adult.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

What Does Consent Look Like at Different Ages?

Learning about boundaries and consent is a process that takes place over many years. Here’s what it looks like at different ages.

In the words of a two-year-old child, whose mother has been teaching body-safety concepts for over a year, “My vagina is mine!”

Toddler to Tween:
Mom to her Mother: “I know you love to hug the boys, but we’re teaching them that they get to choose if and when they give and receive hugs, so they know that if they are ever uncomfortable with touch from anyone, they have our permission to refuse.”

Any age:
“My five-year old son was having his annual physical and did not want the doctor to examine his genitals. After reminding him that because I was with him in the room, and it was part of a health check, it would be okay if he agreed. My son did not agree, so we passed on that part of the exam this time and will try again next time.”
Parenting Safe Children

(Note: There are times, of course, when you would have to reassure you child and go forward with the genital exam if there is a medical concern. And yes, there are times when children’s bodies need to be touched for a variety of other medical reasons when they have not given permission  (e.g., medication in ears, shots or even putting sunblock on when a child refuses); however, there are also times when honoring a child’s lack of permission is an excellent reinforcement in teaching consent.

Four to five years old
“My husband and I were out on a date and when we came home, our sitter told us that she was giving our son a bath and he said, ‘No one is allowed to touch my private parts, so I will wash my own butt.’ Our sitter knows our family’s body-safety rules and respected our son’s boundaries.”

Eight or more years old
“My eleven-year old was at a sleepover party and a couple of the kids suggested looking at porn on their phones. My child was uncomfortable but worried about refusing because of the peer pressure. In the end he said to his friends, ‘That stuff is not real and it’s illegal, and I don’t want to look.’ I think he was able to refuse because of our many talks about not compromising himself for others.”

Tween and teen
“I am comfortable kissing and nothing else for now.”

Adult Committed Partners:

“I know tonight is ‘date night’ but I’m really just in the mood to watch a movie and give each other back rubs. Is that okay with you?”

Talking with Children, Teens and Caregivers about Consent

Learning about boundaries and consent is a process that takes place over many years. By starting the conversation early, your children have more time to internalize body-safety rules and practice setting boundaries. And likewise, by talking with caregivers and family members about boundaries, you can model for your child, and the adults in their lives, what consent looks like and that it matters.

In this article, I will discuss how to talk about consent with caregivers and family members, younger children, and with teens, and will give you sample language for doing so.

Giving Children Choice Around Affection & Modeling Consent
Seize every opportunity to model consent for your children -- and actively support them in giving their own consent around touch. Allow children to choose if, when, and with whom they show affection.

A child who can say “No” to a loved one in a safe environment has a better chance of saying “No” if approached in an unsafe situation. For this reason, I recommend asking children before showing affection. For instance, you might ask, “May I have a kiss?” or “Do you want a hug?”

When you ask, and a child grants or denies permission, you are empowering your child to be the boss of his or her own body. If nothing else, read your child’s body language. If your child resists your hug, that's actually a good thing because your child is asserting his/her own boundary and that's what you want your child to be able to do if ever in an unsafe situation. You can turn this into a teachable moment by saying:

“If you don’t want a hug, that’s fine because you are the boss of your body. When you want a hug or a kiss, let me know.”
A young child typically will rush over and give you a hug because he or she feels empowered! I know how natural it is for parents and grandparents to want to shower their children and grandchildren with hugs and kisses. But giving a child a choice about physical affection teaches that consent matters.

Also invite caregivers to think about boundaries by sharing your child’s body-safety rules:

  • My child is the boss of his/her body.
  • We teach our children body-safety rules.
  • We teach our children to respect adults, but it’s okay for them to say “no” and tell if they ever feel unsafe.
  • Our children do not keep secrets.
But what about Auntie Irma who demands her hug, believes that your child owes her a hug and tells your child she’ll be so sad without a hug? Teach Auntie Irma “the why behind” this body-safety rule, that by teaching your children about consent when they are young, with all the people in their lives, they learn early that it is not their responsibility to manage the feelings of others.

With other adults, you might turn consent into a conversation about matching expectations before kids have a playdate. With babysitters, you might pose some discussion questions - e.g.,

“How would you respond to my children grabbing each other’s private parts while bathing?” and “What would you do if my daughter asked you to tickle her?”
Every time you speak up, you are helping to keep your child safe from sexual abuse and modeling the practice of consent, which will help your child for a lifetime.

Talking with Younger Children about Boundaries

You can start teaching children about consent as soon as they are able to understand basic rules and right from wrong. When talking with younger children (chronologically or mentally), be concrete, and use practice and repetition to help with learning.

Here are five body-safety rules you can teach young children about boundaries, the foundation of consent.

  1. No one is allowed to touch your private parts unless you need help cleaning them, or your private parts are hurt or sick and the doctor or nurse needs to examine them.
  2. It is not okay to touch someone else’s private parts.
  3. No one is allowed to take pictures of your private parts or of you doing anything while you're naked, e.g., going to the bathroom, bathing, or dressing. (This body-safety rule is not meant to prevent parents from taking a photo of their kids in the tub to share with grandma, but is important toward preventing someone from using children for pornographic purposes, which will be the subject of the January newsletter.)
  4. If somebody tries to touch your private parts, say “no,” try to get away, and tell.
  5. “No one is allowed to make you hug or kiss them if you do not want to. No one is allowed to hug or kiss you if you don’t want them to.
And remember to also teach your children that consent is a two-way street. Some kids are super affectionate and will hug and kiss everyone they see. This is a great opportunity to teach kids that they must receive permission from others to give hugs and kisses.

Implicit in all of these rules is the concept that everyone is the boss of his or her body.

Your children will give you ample opportunities to naturally bring up and reinforce these rules. For instance, when you’re washing your toddler’s private parts you might say:
“Mommy is going to clean your penis and testicles now. Remember, no one is allowed to touch your penis, unless you need help cleaning it, which is what I’m doing right now.”
Here’s another example - a four-year-old girl who is touching her vagina while watching TV. Here you might say:
“Since you’re the boss of your body, it’s always OK for you to touch and look at your own private parts, as long as you do it in private when no one else is around.”
Now consider these scenarios and what you might say. We’ll be talking about each one on Facebook in the coming days, so join the discussion.
  • Changing your baby’s diapers:
  • Two kids playing in a wading pool and grabbing each other’s private parts:
  • Older sibling grabs cell phone to take photo of naked younger sibling:
  • Dad showering with son or daughter:
  • Daddy, is that your tail?
Lastly, it is also important to teach children that if someone does touch their private parts, it is never ever their fault -- and they can talk with you about it.
Shame permeates the crime of sexual assault, and is often the reason why people don’t tell for years and years (and sometimes ever). Survivors often believe it was their fault. The abuser counts on this, so we have to remind every child and the adult they become that child sexual abuse is never their fault. Children can never give consent to sexual touch!

For more information about keeping kids safe from sexual abuse, including a complete set of body-safety rules, see Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse.

Talking with Teens about Consent
When talking with teens, you can use more abstract terms like “consent” and “exploitation,” and guidelines such as “Trust your intuition” and “Set sexual boundaries.”

    Parenting Safe Children
  1. No one has the right to touch the private areas of your body without your permission. No one has the right to force, coerce, threaten, or manipulate you into engaging in any type of sexual activity.
  2. You don’t have the right to touch someone else’s private areas of their body without that person’s permission. And it’s never acceptable to force, coerce, bribe, threaten, or manipulate another person into any type of sexual activity. With teens it’s also important to discuss the legal ramifications of sexually assaultive behaviors.
  3. It’s a crime for any person (child, teen or adult) to take photos or videos of your naked body. If any person  ever tries to take a photo of your private parts or naked body, refuse and tell a parent or trusted adult. Also be sure that your child knows that “sexting” – sending nude photos by cell phone – is illegal.
Parenting Safe Children
Credit: Brookdale Community College
For a more detail discussion of these and other body-safety rules, see my book: Off Limits! 

One of the best ways to educate teens and reinforce body-safety rules is through “What-if” games because they lead to meaningful discussions with your child about hypothetical yet real situations.
  • What if you’re at a party and someone makes an unwanted sexual pass at you? What would you say and do?
  • What if you’re drinking and you’re not able to advocate well for yourself?
  • What if you see a friend or peer struggling to get away from someone? What would you say or do?
  • What if someone you don’t know very well wanted to take photos of your body, saying you could become a famous model?
  • What if you’re spending the night at a friend’s house and the friend’s older sibling or father walks around naked? What would you say or do?
  • What if someone you’re interested in starts sexting?
  • What if you agree to kiss someone and then the person you’re with starts pulling up your shirt or unzipping your pants?
When talking with teens and young adults, make sure they understand what consent really means and what it looks like in practice.

Consent is an agreement between people to engage in sexual activity. And in a consensual agreement, you can change your mind any time. This means just because you consent to kissing doesn’t mean you’re consenting to anything else.

Consent can be verbal or nonverbal, but verbal is preferred because it requires one party to ask and the other party to agree. offers these examples of what consent does and does not look like.

Positive consent can look like this:
  • Communicating when you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like “Is this OK?”
  • Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, like “I’m open to trying.”
  • Using physical cues to let the other person know you’re comfortable taking things to the next level
Parenting Safe ChildrenEqually important is what consent does NOT look like:
  • Refusing to acknowledge “no”
  • Assuming that wearing certain clothes, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more
  • Someone being under the legal age of consent, as defined by the state
  • Someone being incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol
  • Pressuring someone into sexual activity by using fear or intimidation
  • Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you’ve done it in the past

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Winning Gold

I find it unacceptable that USA Gymnastics, the sole national governing body for gymnastics in the US with 3,000 gyms, regularly fails to report allegations of child sexual abuse to authorities. This is yet another example of reckless policy making, individual irresponsibility, and institutional failure on behalf of children.

Everything we know about child sexual abuse prevention indicates that we must take every report of abuse or suspected abuse seriously, no matter whether it’s first, second or third hand. The average age a person discloses child sexual abuse is 40, following decades of shame and fear. By then, how many other children have been harmed by the child sexual abuser?

To add insult to injury, USA Gymnastics, like many youth-serving organizations and schools, only conducts criminal background checks. Most people who sexually abuse children are never caught, much less convicted, so background checks are largely meaningless unless conducted as part of a three-pronged strategy that also includes: a) Interview questions about boundaries with children and b) Reference checks.

If the leaders of sports organizations reject best practices and ignore their own moral compass, where does that leave children?

We can and must do better on behalf of all children involved in every level of athletics, from local recreation programs, to school teams, to elite competition. Sexual abuse is not more prominent in one sport over another. All children are vulnerable, but fortunately, there are many small and large actions parents can take to put children first, before the all-consuming power of sports, heroes, and winning.

Here’s exactly what you can do now:

1. Talk with your children about body safety.

Regularly talk with kids about body safety. With all the responsibilities of parenting, it can be tough to continually reinforce body-safety rules, yet it’s important to keep those conversations alive—e.g., “No one is allowed to touch the private areas of your body or ask you to touch theirs. If anyone tries to or does touch your private parts, tell a trusted adult.”
Children don’t always tell when they are being abused because they may have been threatened and/or may fear losing a person (including a coach) they love or admire, or in sports, losing the opportunity to compete.

So remind them, “It’s never too late to tell. I will not be mad at you. I will always love you, and will make sure you get to safely play the sport you love.”

For teen athletes, you would modify the body-safety rule and have a meaningful conversation about consent. “Remember that consent is always a ‘must.’ This means that no one is allowed to touch the private areas of your body without your permission (and visa-versa) and no one has the right to force, coerce, bribe threaten, or manipulate you. It is also never acceptable for an older person in a position of trust or authority, like a coach, to be involved with you or any teen in a sexual way.”

Also talk with your children and teens about texting, emailing and phoning coaches and other adult mentors. Parents or another adult should always be copied on texts and emails. Youth should not be communicating by phone privately with coaches or other adults.

2.  Be vigilant about talking with coaches and administrators. 

Unfortunately, in the quest for power, wins and medals, adults may debase children. If you enroll your child in a program affiliated with a “hero,” or in a program which seeks the spotlight and winning at any cost, screen and screen again. Ask to read the organization’s child sexual abuse prevention policies, ask how the policies translate to practices, and find out how sexual abuse prevention policies and practices are monitored. You have a right to ask, “Has there ever been a concern about anyone in your organization behaving inappropriately with child? If so, how did you handle it?”

Ask about background checks and make sure that administrators are conducting background checks and also checking references and asking interview questions about boundaries with children. Lastly, be sure to ask about policies for adults being alone with children because an adult should never be alone with a child – not in the locker-room, field, gym, car, hotel, or at a competition.

3.  Be wary of hero worship. 

We cannot honor a person’s stature, position, or notoriety at the expense of children's safety. Think about your own attitudes toward the leaders in organizations which care for your child, and don’t be intimidated about asking hard questions. In fact, the more power the person has, the tougher you may have to be to keep your child safe. You have a right to ask any question and to see both policies and staff training materials.

4.  You don’t need proof to protect a child. 

While everyone has a right to due process, do not hesitate to speak up if you see concerning behaviors. Learn the warning signs that someone might be behaving inappropriately with a child—and if you see something or suspect something, tell the organization’s leader, call social services, and/or report it to the police. If you don’t, you are complicit and can be held liable. If you are scared or nervous to speak up, talk with another parent first or call Parenting Safe Children for a consultation.

If you don’t get an immediate and satisfactory response, you may be dealing with an organization or team that puts winning before safety, in which case, keep reporting up the chain and call the police if you have not already done so. Feel free to download for free this Parenting Safe Children resource: Behaviors to Watch Out for When Adults Are with Children 

5.  Own the responsibility. 

We all, as individuals and members of our communities, share responsibility for keeping children safe. Make sure the volunteers, staff, and administrators who interact with your children in school and youth programs have been trained to honor and uphold the body safety of all children.

If you would like some additional support on how to invite your child’s coach and youth sports program onto your prevention team, please see the Parenting Safe Children video: Talking with a Sports Coach about Body Safety

For more information about the source investigative reporting on USA Gymnastics, see A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases: 

Back to School 2016

This is your annual reminder to invite your day care or school personnel onto your prevention team by discussing your children’s body-safety rules with teachers, paraprofessionals, administration, and classroom volunteers. 

Download the free Parenting Safe Children Back-to-School Screening Packet and have a conversation with your day care or school staff.

The packet is also useful for parents with children in daycare, but be sure to include questions about policies around diaper and clothes changing. Make sure there are no opportunities for a staff member to be alone with a child. In-home daycare providers should also have specific policies about how non-staff family members interact with children. 
Policies alone are not enough, however, so also ask how practices are monitored. As you are talking with the director, look for open and forthcoming communication. Every school and day care facility has a responsibility to have a policy manual, but many still do not. If your school or day care does not have specific policies and monitoring in place, ask about plans to do so and then make whatever decision you feel good making on behalf of your child, based on the response.

To sign up for a Parenting Safe Children Workshop, visit

Monday, June 6, 2016

Bathroom Panic

I’ve been asked many questions about transgender men and women using bathrooms and parental concerns about sexual abuse. The questions themselves sometime imply that transgender people are more likely to abuse and this reminds me of a similar myth that is still perpetuated about Gay men.

Fact Check: Gender identity and same sexual orientation are not predictors of child sexual abuse. The vast majority of child sexual abusers are heterosexual males.

North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and similar legislation ban people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate. Proponents of such legislation argue that it’s important because a transgender person, or someone posing as transgender, might otherwise enter a women’s restroom and attack a young girl.

Fact Check: There are hundreds of nondiscrimination measures in place across the United States, and according to law enforcement officials, there has not been a surge in bathroom victimizations.

Unbeknownst, you and your children have been sharing public bathrooms with transgender men and women long before North Carolina passed House Bill 2 and well before Target announced a policy allowing transgender people to use the restroom of their choice. We didn’t worry it about it then and we shouldn’t worry now.

Fact Check: Child sexual abuse typically takes place in homes, youth organizations, schools, camps, and places of faith – not typically in public bathrooms.

“Stranger danger” is among a parent’s worst fear and such occurrences garner a great deal of media attention because they are brazen and sometimes horrific, but in day-to-day reality, people who sexually abuse children typically “groom” children and teens over days, weeks, and months. The abuser is not just alone with the child, but has authority over the child and takes advantage of the child’s trust.

Fact Check: 90-93% of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts, who is already in their life – not by strangers.

Parenting Safe Children
Test Your Knowledge
This statistic may not feel entirely reassuring because it means that 7-10% of abuse is committed by someone the child does not know, but this is not necessarily in a bathroom.

Female survivors are speaking up as well and a few have shared in the press that it would be traumatic to find a person with male genitals in the bathroom. My heart goes out to every survivor healing from sexual assault. It may be helpful to know that most gender neutral bathrooms, particularly at this point, are single-stall bathrooms – often labeled “Family Restroom” –  so anyone using that bathroom is alone anyway.

In the absence of facts, I believe that people are contributing to a climate of discrimination that hurts transgender people – and does nothing to keep children safe from sexual abuse. In fact, discrimination not only hurts the group whom it targets, but in this case it’s a dangerous distraction. I urge people to redirect their focus to meaningful ways of keeping children safe.

  1. Educate yourself about grooming behaviors so you can spot behaviors of concern.
  2. Teach children the difference between secrets and surprises. A secret is something that someone asks you “never” to tell and makes you feel uncomfortable. A surprise is something that makes you feel good and will come out into the open like a gift or a party.
  3. Maintain a “No secrets” policy in your home. Let your kids know that you don’t have secrets, only surprises. Instead of saying, “Don’t tell Mom I let you stay up tonight or we’ll both get into trouble,” you might say, "I'll let you stay up late tonight and if Mom and I disagree about bedtime, we'll work it out. It's not your problem."
    Parenting Safe Children
  4. Discuss boundaries around touch with all of your child’s caregivers, including family members, coaches, teachers, and faith leaders, and let caregivers know that your child does not keep secrets and has permission to tell you everything.
  5. Let adults know that your child has permission to say “No” if he or she ever feels unsafe.
Parenting Safe Children stands in unison with 250 national, state and local organizations, that work to prevent child sexual abuse or work with sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, in supporting equal bathroom access for transgender people.