At dinner after the first day of summer camp, I felt the pressing urgency to have the tricky people talk with my kids again. I trust the program and the directors and counselors where my kids attend day camp each summer, but the camp is located at a public park and the community pool. The groups often go on field trips. While they are under close supervision, there is always the chance a stranger (or, yes, even a trusted counselor) could approach them in unsafe and inappropriate ways. I don’t tell my kids that all strangers are bad, but I tell them that some are tricky and those are the ones we need to talk about.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, I am very determined to give my kids the information they need to know their rights and right to body autonomy. I am also very aware of the horrific statistics for childhood sex abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau data, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be victims. I know I can’t keep my kids in bubbles, but I can try to give them the language and the tools they need to feel equipped to know when something isn’t right. With repetitive conversations, I hope I can build their confidence to be able to act in way that will give them an advantage if a predator tries to lure or hurt them.
Since the first day of camp jitters were over, I asked my kids a question I ask them several times a year: “Hey, do you think it’s okay for an adult you don’t know to ask you for help?”
My oldest daughter and child, age 8, immediately said no. My twins, who are 6, hesitated for a second. My son is a rule follower and helper. I know it’s his instinct to say yes. His twin sister is a bit more skeptical; when she said no, he did too.
“Should you take anything from an adult you don’t know or follow them to see something cool—like money, a toy, or any other type of surprise?”
Again my oldest, who has heard this conversation more often, said no. My son did too, but in this case, his twin sister hesitated. She really likes stuff. After everyone agreed that taking something or going with someone they didn’t know to get a gift was a bad idea, we talked about it. We also talked about why unfamiliar adults who ask for help are not safe adults.
I reminded them that an adult who asks a kid they don’t know for help is a tricky person; they are trying to trick a child into an unsafe situation. A safe adult knows to ask another adult for help. A safe adult knows they can always call a police officer if they really need assistance.
I also told them I know it can be kind for someone to give you something and it’s exciting to get a gift, but only a tricky person would try to use a surprise or prize to make friends with a kid they don’t know. I use these phrases too:
Tricky people want you to keep secrets. We don’t keep secrets in this family.
Tricky people don’t want you to ask another adult’s or a parent’s permission if you aren’t sure about what they are telling you to do.
I don’t teach my kids the stranger danger concept, because they may need a stranger for help, not all strangers are bad (after all, relationships start as strangers before friendship grows), and some people they trust may turn out to be dangerous.
My oldest child wanted to know what makes someone unsafe; what is the danger? She wanted to know why a tricky person would be tricky. I tell my kids that some adults are sick and it’s hard to understand why they would want to hurt a child; I don’t get into details because they are too young to comprehend this idea in a way that wouldn’t terrify them. But I warn them that sometimes part of an adult hurting a child is that they want to see or touch kids’ bodies or private parts. I have always used the correct words for body parts and my kids do too. They know that no one is allowed to see or touch their penis or vagina and they shouldn’t be looking at anyone’s private parts either. We have talked about appropriate touch, so they know their doctor, I, and their other mama can help examine or wipe them.
When talking about tricky people, we go over what to say and what to do. I tell them that in these cases, they are allowed to scream, yell at, hit or run away from an adult, even if that adult is someone they thought they could trust. I am doing my best to give them tools to protect themselves while enforcing the fact that they are never at fault for anything that makes them feel “icky.” I want my kids to have the language to tell me when something feels off and hopefully I am giving them the confidence to trust those gut feelings.
My kids like to get into scenarios where they tell me all of the ninja moves they are going to do to get away from a tricky person, but I redirect them and let my kids know that saying no or running away is what I would like for them to focus on. I tell them to find a friend or another adult who they feel safe with and tell them what happened. I ask them to please tell me if anything ever happens or if they ever feel uncomfortable around someone.
Having this conversation early and often with my kids gives me a little peace of mind as I send them off into a world that doesn’t always have their best interest at heart. I believe there are a lot of good people in this world, but there are a lot of sick monsters too. I can’t control every situation my kids are in or the people they encounter, but my hope is to protect them even when I am not around by having delicate conversations with my kids in matter of fact and empowering ways.
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