Seven year old Stacey loved her first grade classroom and everything about school. However, after winter break her teacher, Ms. Lee noticed something different about her. Stacey seemed much quieter and easily distracted. Ms. Lee figured it was just the post-Christmas blues. One day, during sharing time at their morning meeting, Stacey said, “my Daddy has been eating my cookie.” Ms. Lee was a bit unsure as to why Stacey chose to share this and made a note to herself to review with the class when to make words plural. But as things go in public schools, time was of the essence and they had to move on.
This story is based closely on a true story that I learned about when I took an online training course called Stewards of Children by the non-profit Darkness to Light. The course presented incredible information about signs of child sexual abuse, statistics on the topic, how to respond when children disclose, and how anyone can help to create a world where no child suffers this heinous act of violence. All adults have a responsibility to be leaders when it comes to preventing child sexual abuse. But contrary to the traditional power roles assigned to adults and children, this involves giving children more autonomy, not less, while working to remove the shame that gives offenders a convenient hiding place.
In thinking about Stacey’s story, one of the first things that strikes me is how Ms. Lee did not investigate further when she started noticing a change in Stacey. One way that anyone can be a leader is to simply ask children questions. Not explicit questions like, “has someone hurt you?” or persistent badgering, but simply checking in with the child by asking them if there is anything they want to talk about. It is possible that if Ms. Lee had checked in with Stacey, she could have led to an earlier intervention.
A second way this anecdote shows how anyone can be a leader against child sexual abuse is by underlining the need for adults to stop referring to genitalia with “pet names.” I have never heard of a vagina being called a cookie, but I know that children are taught a litany of pet names by which to refer to their private parts. Some include: pee-pee, hoo-haa, lily, flower, Christmas, vee-vee, kitten, hoo-hoo, cootchie, tutu, winky, wiener. Encouraging children to use anatomically correct terms not only provides them with agency and understanding, it also makes any potential disclosure clearer. The heartbreaking part of the story about Stacey and Ms. Lee is that had Stacey used the word “vagina” she could have received help much sooner. Perhaps even more insidiously, using pet names for genitalia perpetrates shame and uneasiness with those parts of the body. We have to think from the mind of a child: “if this area of my body is secret and called a funny name then I guess I should never talk about it.” Perpetrators often tell their victims to keep the abuse a “secret.” Even if parents and schools teach their children about “good and bad touch”, and that they can tell trusted grown-ups anything, from the conceptual mindset of a young child embedded in a culture of confusion, secrecy, and shame about vaginas and penises, they may just decide it would be best to keep their secret.
In speaking about adults who children trust, we come to some stark statistics. 90% of child sexual abuse is inflicted by a trusted adult known to the child. And on average, child sexual abuse affects 10% of children: 1 in every 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will fall victim of this heinous crime. These statistics are baffling to me. How can a person do something so cruel to a child they know and are supposed to love? However, to me, spending time trying to comprehend this unanswerable question is of no use. We must move forward and think about ways in which we can provide education and prevention to combat this issue holistically as a community.
Any community member has the agency to be a leader in preventing child sexual abuse. In order to file a complaint to Child Protective Services (CPS) one does not need to be a mandated reporter (someone such as a teacher or doctor, who is bound law to report any suspected abuse or neglect) one just needs to have reasonable suspicion. This does not mean you need to have proof, that is the job of CPS. In fact it is best to not question the child as they will be questioned repeatedly by many people. Asking the question “are you sure” is also not helpful. It can sometimes sound accusatory to the child. What you can tell a child if they disclose to you is that you believe them and will work to keep them safe. Because sex is often conceived as a shameful and private act, people often seem to think, “oh that’s not my business.” However, when it comes to our children, we cannot stay silent. We must not ignore signs of sexual abuse for fear of “ruffling feathers.” It may feel uncomfortable to try to step up and intervene by calling in professionals. My response to this is blunt: that little bit of uncomfortableness is nothing compared to what too many children go through. Any adult with concerns about a child needs to step up and be a leader instead of folding to dated social conventions. We have an epidemic: one child who faces sexual abuse is one too many – let alone one in ten. Staying silent only enables perpetrators and grows the epidemic.
Another simple prevention strategy is to teach children that their bodies are their own and they have the right to decline any form of contact. If you have a child and you want her to hug and kiss her Grandpa goodbye but she does not want to, and you make her, what does this teach the child about her ability to say no to physical contact? When I say this, I often get the response, “well this is different, it is just being respectful to elders.” We have to remember here that 90% of all child sexual abuse is carried out by a trusted adult who the child knows. If a child feels their only choice is to listen to and do whatever adults say, and furthermore, the child has been conditioned to think that they do not have control over their body, then that child will be less likely to disclose abuse. For instance, I have been the caregiver to an adorable kiddo who I have wanted to hug. The parent has said to the child, “come on, give Allison a hug”. While yes, I want that hug, I now simply say, “That is okay maybe later. Do you want a high-five or fist-bump instead?” Something else to remember when working with children is to always ask first: “Would you like a hug?” or “Do you want a high-five?” And if at any time with physical play (tickling, lifting little ones up, giving raspberries) that child says to stop – even if through laughter – we must stop.
To be the best leader in combatting child sexual abuse, we must accept a paradigm shift. Adults are not with total authority. We must give children more agency in order to create an environment where children have the power to declare boundaries and disclosures can happen sooner. To lead well, adults must allow children to become leaders of their own bodies and teach them to have control and agency. However, we need more than just parents and educators for this to happen. Anyone and everyone can be a leader in what needs to be a big cultural shift. How is this portrayed in the media? What about how we talk about others in music or films? Symbolically, we have to move past thinking of children as weak beings in need of assertive control. We need to change the adult mindset of having complete authority and control over children. Rebuilding our image of children as youngsters who are strong, capable, and full of power can help this paradigm shift. Children can still respect and listen to adults while also being taught that they have authority over their bodies and actions. In fact, I believe this cultural shift can help in more ways than just protecting children against sexual abuse. It can teach children self-regulation skills, help them to find self-empowerment and to develop higher critical thinking skills, enhance their decision-making capabilities, encourage them to gain a greater sense of responsibility for their bodies, and help to develop a sense of what a healthy relationship is.
I truly wish that I had one tool to give you so that you could be the leader who ends child sexual abuse for good. But there is no magic fix. What you can do is be the leader who pays attention and gives agency to children, teaches them and those around you that no body part is shameful, pushes for more education, more support resources, and promptly steps up when there is a reasonable concern to be addressed.