We hear about child molestation and rape far too often these days. While we can’t anticipate all the situations our kids will be exposed to throughout their lives, we can teach them how to protect themselves in all situations and if there’s trouble to speak up. Teach them to respect themselves, to respect others, and to never keep secrets. Talk about consent often, starting in the toddler and preschool years!
Start in the toddler years?
What about their innocence?
It’s never too soon to talk about body safety. You don’t need to cover all the specifics at young ages, but there are many age appropriate things to talk about at each stage.
The message and words change over the years as your child grows, but start young!
Teach proper body part names.
We call eyes “eyes.”
An elbow is an elbow.
Why should we call a vagina a “hoo hoo” or a penis a “wee wee”?
If kids ever need to talk about those body parts and the other person doesn’t know the slang, it’s more difficult to get the point across.
Wouldn’t you feel awful if your preschooler tried to tell a teacher that another adult touched her inappropriately, but the teacher thought “hoo hoo” was just a fun term, so didn’t act on the issue?
Teaching kids about private body parts is important. Let them know that their swim suit area is private. No one should be able to look or touch there without permission from Mom or Dad and from the child himself.
Teach respect of personal space.
Many kids love to hug and kiss everyone they see.
Other kids hate to be hugged or kissed.
Sometimes they just don’t feel like it, but other times they’re okay with a big bear hug.
All of these feelings are okay, but we must be mindful of how these interactions are approached and consented.
Teach your kids to always ask permission before entering someone’s personal space.
They can say something as simple as, “Can I give you a hug and kiss goodbye or should we high-five or blow kisses?”
Encourage kids to demand permission before being touched. You can model this kind of expectation by asking before touching.
~ Can I be a tickle monster and get you?
~ It’s time to wash your back. Should I do it or do you want to do it yourself? Now it’s time to wash your penis, do you want help?
~ Do you want me to rub your back to help you fall to sleep?
Be sure others ask similar questions of your child.
Talk to family members about this when the child isn’t present. You don’t want it to be an ordeal in front of everyone, so a little discussion ahead of time can help the adult understand and follow your expectations.
If adults continue to enforce a hug or kiss, it’s a red flag that they don’t appreciate boundaries. I would not recommend allowing your kids to be alone with them. They might simply be innocently wanting a hug from a cute kid, but they also might be testing to see how the child reacts in preparation for more intimate touches.
Don’t force your kids to be kissed or hugged by anyone, even family members. If they don’t want Grandma or Uncle Buddy to get too close, they shouldn’t be forced to give a hug or kiss.
Think about the message that sends.
They should not have to submit to being touched. Ever.
Teach proper hygiene.
Once kids are potty trained, they can start learning to wash their own genitals. It will take practice before they can do an adequate job, but if you don’t start teaching them, how will they ever know what to do?
If they still need help toileting or bathing, be sure they know that only adults who have permission are allowed to help. This means you must tell them that it’s okay for any specific person to help.
Many girls wipe inadequately after urinating. Some rub too hard, which irritates the genitals. They often miss some of the urine and the inner labia stays moist, which leads to redness and pain.
Teach them to wiggle the toilet paper between the skin folds.
Many kids will need help wiping after a bowel movement for many years, but you can show them how to wipe until the toilet paper no longer has streaks on it. Using a flushable wet wipe is often helpful.
At bath time teach them to wash their genitals.
For girls this means using a mild soap and rinsing between all the skin folds with water well. Soap residue can really irritate the sensitive labial skin.
For boys, washing the genitals and between the buttocks is important too. If he is uncircumcised, teach him to gently pull back on the foreskin to rinse the head of the penis. If it does not yet retract, do not force it.
As kids get older, they have lots of questions about their body. You want them to ask you or another trusted adult for answers, rather than going to the internet to find answers.
Answer questions as truthfully as you can. Don’t feel like you have to answer more than what’s asked.
Where do babies come from?
Of course when they ask how babies are made, you need to answer it to a level they can understand.
Young kids don’t need to know that a penis goes into the vagina to release sperm and fertilize an egg. They can’t comprehend that.
Think about what they’re asking and answer that question truthfully without going into details they won’t yet understand.
If you’re not ready to answer the question when it’s asked, buy yourself time. Tell them that it’s a great question and you want to think about it. Be sure to give a specific time that you’ll be able to answer the question. Think about it, prepare what you’ll say, and discuss it at the chosen time.
Model healthy relationships.
When kids see healthy relationships, they learn that that is what is appropriate and acceptable in a relationship. Show respect in what you do and say to all people around you. Demand respect in how others treat you.
If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, work with a counselor so you both can learn to work together to improve the relationship. If that’s not possible, especially if the relationship isn’t safe, think about how to safely separate. It isn’t easy, but if your kids grow up watching an abusive relationship, they are more likely to end up in the same situation.
Teach kids to ask for help.
It can be really hard for kids to learn when it’s best to work out problems and when to ask for help. No one likes a tattle tale, but there are times kids need help from adults.
When safety’s an issue, an adult should be part of the solution. If a friend is doing something dangerous, such as running into the street, it’s best to tell an adult.
If kids are simply frustrated that another child won’t share a toy or play the game your child wants to play, that is something that kids can at least start working out on their own.
Praise kids when they make smart choices about asking for help when needed and when they solve their own conflicts appropriately.
No means no. Stop means stop.
Teach kids that we always need to respect others when they say no or stop.
For example, if Sissy says to stop tickling her, stop.
When friends or adults don’t listen if they’re told no or stop, kids need to think about if they feel safe and if they still want to be around their friend. If they don’t feel safe, they need to talk to you or another trusted adult.
Books can help talk about these difficult topics. Some suggestions for saying “no” appropriately and “stop” when needed:
For teens, I love this Cup of Tea video. It explains so well that no means no!
Remind kids that they’ll never be in trouble for telling you things. There are never secrets in families. We might keep surprises, but never secrets.
You might need to change your wording at times… If you’re buying or making a gift for someone, it’s a surprise, not a secret. Surprises are fun. We can build up suspense for the fun by not telling. But secrets make us feel bad because we can’t share them.
Remind your kids that if anyone asks them to keep a secret, it’s best to tell their parent.
A great book on this subject is Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept!
Sometimes it’s hard to believe what our kids tell us. But if we don’t believe them or we discount their stories, they will stop telling us things.
I know that I’ve been challenged to believe many things my kids tell me, but instead of downplaying the story or telling them to stop lying, I try to ask more questions.
Once my daughter told me about an accident the bus had while she was on a field trip. I didn’t believe her (surely the school would have alerted parents) and asked more about what she was saying without outright saying she was lying or telling stories. I asked for more clarification, thinking she’d contradict what she had said, but she kept to the same story. It wasn’t too much later that the school sent out a message that the bus had been in an accident and there were no injuries. I told her that I got the message and she just beamed. She knew I didn’t believe her! But it was an opportunity to let her know that sometimes I might not believe stories initially, but I was proud that she told me and continued to try to show me the truth.
If your kids ever tell you they don’t want to visit or stay with a certain person, find out why. If they say they’re scared, don’t discount it. Even if you trust the person, believe your child. Molesters are adept at grooming families to gain trust. Kids generally don’t make abuse up.
Men and women are different.
When kids are young, teach in general terms about males and females.
You can talk to young kids about why men and women look different than kids. Many will question why men have facial hair, women have breasts, or how a baby will get out of mom’s tummy. They might want to know why you have feminine hygiene products in the bathroom or what they’re for. Answer the questions to their level of understanding.
Talk about puberty before changes happen. Younger kids are more open to learning new things. Once changes start, kids are confused and more self conscious. Puberty starts in girls around 8-12 years of age and in boys about 2 years later. When you notice changes, reassure your kids that it’s normal and they’re just growing up!
For more on menstruation specifically, check out my Q&A about periods.
Some of my favorite books on puberty:
The internet has opened the doors to a lot of knowledge and sharing of information. It can be used to better ourselves, but it can also leave kids open and vulnerable. It can lead to bullying. Sometimes it encourages feelings of inadequacy. Online predators can take advantage of our kids.
This is a huge topic and cannot be covered here, but in short: teach kids to never share anything online that they wouldn’t want the public to see. It is okay for parents to monitor online activities, it’s not threatening their privacy. It’s helping them stay safe.
Think of supervising online activities like supervising learning to drive.
You would never just give the car keys to your teen and expect them to safely drive. You first have them learn the rules of the road and pass a written test to get a learner’s permit. The learner’s permit allows them to drive while being supervised. After many hours of supervised driving, they may get a license that allows them to drive alone, but you probably wouldn’t let them take a long road trip alone yet. They start out with quick trips around town, then onto highways, and finally longer trips. The specific timeline of that depends on the teen. Some need longer times at each stage, others show maturity and responsibility more quickly.
Common Sense Media has a number of helpful articles about online safety.
Our actions impact others.
Kids can learn how their actions affect others and that they can’t alter anyone else’s behavior without first changing their behavior.
While this doesn’t seem initially to impact sexual consent, it does. What happens if we all do what we want when we want, without caring what others think or feel? We take advantage of others and hurt people. We don’t want our kids to grow up without empathy or social conscience. It also helps kids to identify their own feelings in response to other people’s actions, which might help them avoid people who make poor choices.
Talk to kids when you see opportunities to talk about the impact of behaviors. Find examples they can identify with.
For example, if a child was being noisy at the library, what kind of impression did they make? How did the noise affect everyone else’s experience at the library? What situations can they think of that they were noisy when they should have been more quiet? How can we be more mindful of our own noise level?
What can kids do if they see a bully? Is it hard to recognize the significance of bullying when everyone’s laughing at another child? Should they join in the laughter when someone’s being teased? Can they stand up for the person being bullied? When should they talk to an adult?
A fun game to play that can help kids learn how to change their behavior to get a better outcome I call Rewind. You roll play and rewind a situation and play it out differently. When kids complain about the outcome of an event, have them role play it to try to get to a better ending. The trick is they have to be the first to change what they say or do. In the real world we can’t just expect someone else to change a behavior.
For example, if your son is upset that no one would play hop scotch at recess, he can’t simply expect that someone will join him the next day. Other kids might not realize that he wants to play. Maybe he can ask kids to play with him. Roll play what to say if he’s turned down. Think about why other kids don’t want to play hop scotch. Are they all busy playing basketball? Talk about being open to taking turns: maybe another child will play hop scotch with him if he plays basketball with the other child first. The trick is that he just can’t expect others to change their behaviors unless he changes his first.
One word that summarizes most of the above is respect.
Respect yourself enough to eat right, sleep adequately, and exercise. Take care of your body and mind. Be the best you can be. Don’t do things that you know could harm your body or cause you to get into trouble.
Respect others and their wishes. If you’re kind and respectful towards others, they will appreciate it.
This does not mean that kids have to do everything other people ask them to do. They should never do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or that they know is wrong. See the last respect point…
Demand that others respect you
Just like you should respect others, they should respect you. If everyone respects other’s thoughts and feelings, we would have no abuse or bullying in our lives.
We can’t change other people’s actions all the time, but we can leave situations where people are not kind and respectful. Kids need to know that they should talk to an adult if someone is not being respectful to them.