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Allison Wedell Schumacher's picture

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not (and please pardon me for hearkening back to yuletide when your azaleas are finally blooming), you’ve probably heard that famous line of Scrooge’s from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

That line was on my mind in the last days of April, which was Child Abuse Prevention Month. I realize that we need to have days, weeks, and months like this to raise awareness about important issues, but the fact is that child predators won’t conveniently wait until next April to abuse children. So if children are at risk of abuse year round, we adults must have their protection at the forefront of our minds year round.

Dental Work and Other Delightful Experiences

And hey, I get it: Child sexual abuse is uncomfortable to think about, let alone talk about. There are lots of things I’d rather do (cutting down blackberry brambles and getting a cavity filled spring to mind). But research shows that talking to kids about sexual abuse is one of the best ways to protect them from it, and to help them learn that they can come to us if it does happen. And the fact is that, when I weigh the discomfort of spending a few minutes on a regular basis discussing touching safety with my seven-year-old daughter against the horror of watching her go through the often devastating consequences of abuse, the discomfort wins out. Hands down. Every single time.

Another source of discomfort for me as a mom is the statistic that, in the vast majority of cases (numbers range from 70 to 90 percent), abused children know their attacker. I really don’t like to think that I would allow my child to be with an adult who would abuse her. I imagine a room full of her family, teachers, friends’ parents, babysitters, and caregivers—carefully considered and vetted, one and all—and then imagine some expert walking in the room and telling me, “You didn’t choose very well, did you, because one of these people is going to sexually abuse your child.” How insulting! I’m a better judge of character than that!

Avoiding the 1 Percent

But there again, in this game of “Would You Rather,” I would prefer to prepare for the possibility that I could be grievously wrong about someone’s intentions toward my daughter over leaving her unprotected by pretending it will never happen. Not to mention the fact that I will never be in total control of who she spends time with. What if she’s playing at a friend’s house and that friend’s uncle is visiting? That situation will be innocuous 99 percent of the time. It’s that other 1 percent we have to be prepared for.

So I grit my teeth, take a deep breath, and tell my daughter that no one is allowed to touch her private parts except to keep her healthy. I tell her always to ask me (or the adult in charge) first, whether it’s about playing at the neighbors’ or accepting a cookie from her aunt. And I tell her, over and over and over again: no secrets. Even if a grownup tells you not to tell. Tell me anyway. I will believe you.

The New Normal

The trick to these conversations, I’ve found, is not to treat them like business-suit-clad international summits, but normal, everyday chats. We talk about eating healthy food (and agree that chocolate chip cookies totally rock). We talk about wearing a helmet on our bikes (and yours is awesome because it has pink flowers on it). And we talk about staying safe from unsafe touches.

On Saturday, for example, we were getting ready to go to the pool when my daughter asked me to help her find her swimsuit. Swimsuit! That’s how we teach the youngest children what their private body parts are: the parts covered by a swimsuit. Stand by to deploy motherly wisdom in 3…2…1…

Me: Hey, remind me—what are your private body parts, again?

Kiddo: The parts my swimsuit covers.

Me: Oh yeah! And what happens if someone wants to touch those parts?

Kiddo: I say no.

Me: You say what?

Kiddo: NO!!!

Me: Nice assertiveness! Then what do you do?

Kiddo: I tell a grownup.

Me: What if that grownup doesn’t believe you?

Kiddo: I keep telling until someone does. Mommy, where are my goggles?

Don’t let the seeming Brady-Bunch-y perfection of this one exchange fool you: There were several eye rolls and exasperated sighs, as there often are. But the point is that she knows this stuff, and she knows she can tell me anything.

Little help?

If you need a little more guidance on how or why to have these conversations, check out this free suite of videos and articles from Committee for Children. They’re short and to the point, but more importantly, they acknowledge that talking to your kids about sexual abuse can be daunting and uncomfortable at first. I go back to them when I need to remember exactly how to go about it—they’re handy to have around.

Take Action: Early, Open, Often

So now, even after Child Abuse Prevention Month, just remember the phrase “early, open, often.” It can help all of us honor child safety in our hearts and keep it all the year.

Here are some other ways you can make a difference in child protection:

  • Share these videos with every adult you know via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or email.

  • Urge your state legislators to pass Erin’s Law, which requires sexual abuse prevention programming in schools.

  • Ask your child’s school to adopt a research-based child protection program that involves lessons for kids AND training for adults, such as the Second Step Child Protection Unit.

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