When I was pregnant with my first son, a friend of our family was arrested on child porn and solicitation charges. The child he tried to solicit refused his advances and immediately told his parents. These parents taught their kid some simple concepts they called “body rules,” which equipped their child to stand up and say no. Ultimately, the kid was able to protect himself from a predator, and suffer less harm. The perpetrator ended up in jail because of this brave little boy.
As a first-time mom-to-be, I was already terrified of bringing my innocent baby into this scary world. When someone I would have trusted with my son turned out to be a child sex offender, it absolutely rocked me to the core.
I know child predators don’t exactly wear lighted signs alerting the rest of us to their presence. I wasn’t shocked that this could happen. It was just really frightening that I was so close to someone who had abused innocent children, and I had no clue.
I knew that if I wanted my kid to have a fighting chance against any monster who would set out to hurt him, I’d need to make sure he knew he could say no to anyone, and I would always be on his side. We’d have to talk about bodily autonomy, appropriate touch, and tricky people. We would implement the body rules.
In most things, I consider myself a really careful communicator when it comes to my kids. We have healthy, productive conversations about everything from feelings, to future dreams, to current interests. I am honest with them, even about tough stuff. We have discussed death, poverty, racism, gay rights and miscarriage. I encourage them to tell me what’s going on if they seem sad, angry or frustrated. We spend every single day together, and I think we do a great job talking most things through.
It’s usually easy for me to talk to my kids, but when it comes to discussing their safety, I struggle. I find myself paralyzed by fear when I even imagine my child in any kind of danger, whether it’s from a child predator, a busy street, a whole grape or an unattended pool.
Speaking to my kids from a place of my own anxiety definitely muddied the body rules message.
That’s not to say I’ve made a total mess. I’m confident I’ve imparted some useful wisdom in healthy, balanced moments. I know my boys get the basic idea that their bodies are their own.
Unfortunately, I have also passed on some of my own fear and worry.
I really started to realize that a couple weeks ago when I dropped my son off for vacation bible school. First, he just jumped out of the van and said, “Bye Mommy!” He was ready to go, without a hint of fear or hesitation. Then he paused and turned around, his face serious and concerned. He solemnly added, “Don’t worry. If any tricky people try to come in the bathroom with me and see my penis, I’ll tell them to go away, and I’ll tell my teacher right away.”
I was taken aback. Is that what he thinks he should be worried about during the two hours he gets to go to church? I told him that I was proud of his firm grasp on the body rules, and I sent him on his way with a cheerful order to have SO. MUCH. FUN!
I watched him gallop over to his class, laughing and greeting his friends. He looked so brave and sweet. I was so upset that he was worried and scared because of how I talked about personal safety. My son was supposed to be playing and singing, not worrying about whether some monster was going to sneak into the bathroom with him.
The world is dangerous, and I can’t shield my kids from knowing about some of it. Still, I don’t want to create a sense of fear and powerlessness in my own kids. It’s not a kid’s job to be on the lookout for predators. It’s my job to put my boys in reasonable situations, knowing there is only so much I can control. I don’t want my kids to worry that everyone is potentially out to hurt them. There are a lot of amazing, wonderful people who have talent and energy they want to pour into children. Good people have so much to give my boys, and I want my kids to trust people enough to learn from them.
Somewhere along the way, I missed the mark. It was time to make this right.
We were going to talk about body rules again, and this time, we were going to focus on the positive. I knew if I set up some kind of formal meeting and made a big deal about it, I’d reinforce my son’s anxiety and step on my own point. So, while my son was at VBS making me a paper plate necklace with the 10 plagues on it (don’t ask), I pulled out my phone and made myself a list of the concepts I actually wanted him to internalize.
Over the course of a few days, I brought them up at casual times.
Instead of focusing on tricky people and a long list of rules about nakedness and private parts and inappropriate touch, we read books and watched videos about the wonder of the human body. I talked about all the things a body can do without much help from us, and how strong and smart and good bodies are. We learned how our ears hear, how our immune system fights viruses, and how healthy foods fuel our bodies properly.
We didn’t rehash the dos and don’ts of the body rules. Instead, I explained why we have body rules at all. I told my son that a kid’s body has a lot of work to do to become a grownup. It’s performing little miracles every day, growing stronger and bigger by the minute. We try to protect kids’ bodies because they have an important job to do. There is nothing shameful about a body — only wonderful!
I also revisited the idea of consent. I have told him his whole life that consent means permission to touch someone’s body. He knows there are laws in place to protect kids because their brains are still growing, and they aren’t ready to give consent. He also knows just from observing me with my husband that adults and kids have different body rules. Adults sometimes give other adults permission to see and touch their bodies, and that’s okay.
My son has had a few great questions since we had this discussion. (He also asked me if he could “skip the biological name and just say balls,” but that’s not the point.)
I am glad I realized it was time to have a positive conversation with my kids about their bodies. It was good for them to hear how amazing they are, and I know it relieved some of my older son’s fear.
Honestly, it was really good for me, too. I gave myself sort of a loose script, and now I can refer to it next time instead of rambling from a place of fear and anxiety.
It was so important for me to get a firm grasp on how I wanted to communicate about sex and safety to my kids.
As my sons get older, these early lessons will set the stage for more complicated conversations. If we talk about these things positively now, things like safe sex and consent will be easier to explain later. I’ve made it clear from minute one that they are the bosses of their own bodies.
Right now, that concept protects my boys from predators. Down the line, I hope it benefits their partners, too.
My kids will know that contraceptives and safe sex are their responsibility. If my boys sleep with women, I never want them to think birth control is a woman’s job. No matter who they choose to sleep with, I want them to be in charge of their own STI protection. They need to know how to go into any situation prepared to protect their bodies and their partners.
Since we have discussed the idea of consent, it will be natural to move into discussions about exactly what consent looks like. I can teach my sons that the absence of no doesn’t mean yes, and anyone can revoke consent at any time. They’ll understand that easily because they know their bodies are their own, and they don’t have rights to anyone else’s body.
Now that I have clarified the messages I want to teach my kids, I know we can revisit this topic as needed, and I’ll have the confidence I need to be effective, now and later. I know I’m prepared, and that feels good.