I couldn’t believe what my friend had just told me.
We were at her house, trying to get our boys to eat the frozen pizza we’d just taken out of the oven. Both hubbies were working late, and we had time to chat. Her son had just left the room to go potty, and she told me.
“At his 3-year appointment, the pediatrician actually said it’s time for him to learn to change clothes in private and not let anyone besides family see him in his underwear,” she said.
I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.
“Why?” I asked. They’re so young. They’re just learning to potty train.
“Because they can be targets of abuse.”
Wow. Like, wow.
3 years old.
The thing is, I know it’s true. As a former TV news reporter, I’ve done stories on it. Predators are everywhere. I did a story once on how Florida (where we live) is a hotbed of formerly-incarcerated sexual offenders, predators and rapists.
The words of the cop I interviewed have echoed in my head ever since:
‘When you’re in a cold prison cell in New York or Michigan for 2 decades, what do you dream about? Sunny beaches. And when you get out of prison, Florida is exactly where you want to go.’
So, it was pure providence that, about a month after my friend dropped this bombshell, I got an email from Educate and Empower Kids, asking if I’d be willing to review their book, 30 Days of Sex Talks: Empowering Your Child With Emotional Intimacy (which was written with input from a mental health counselor, therapist and parents). It’s a series of 3 books, organized by age group, to equip parents to talk to their kids about sex.
I’ll be honest.
At first, I did not want to read it.
I didn’t want to be disturbed.
I didn’t want to think about talking to my preschooler about sex, anatomy and what’s appropriate. I was scared. I didn’t want to shatter his innocence. He’s still playing with Legos and obsessing about his favorite shark bath toy. I don’t want these days to end. If he were ever abused, I can’t imagine how I’d ever go on. What I’d do. It would be completely and absolutely crippling. I actually think I would never be able to recover.
Stop, I told myself, you need to be brave.
Brave isn’t usually a word I associate with reading a book. But in this case, it was true. I needed to have courage to learn about things that scared me.
“Research has repeatedly shown that children and adults believe the first source of information on nearly every subject they learn about,” explains Amanda Scott, vice president of Educate and Empower Kids.
“This is why it is imperative that parents be the first source when it comes to sex-related issues, rather than television, popular music or online pornography.”
The thing is, I know that knowledge is power. So it’s time for me to learn how to equip my child to enter the world, armed with all the sexual safety tools I can give him.
Last weekend, I sat down and read the whole book in about 30 minutes. (Since my oldest is 3, I read the preschooler version, which is geared toward kids 3 to 7 years old, but there are other versions, for kids 8 to 11, and 12 years and up.) It was easy-to-digest, and contained dozens of helpful tips on how to teach a toddler to trust his gut, even if it goes against what an adult is telling him to do. Of course, every parent knows their child best, and the book encourages readers to use the information to craft their own conversations with their kids.
Here are some of my favorite tidbits from the book:
1. Our kids are exposed to much more than we were. These aren’t the days of sneaking into the neighbor kid’s garage and watching him open a dusty box of his dad’s old Playboys. Today, American children spend an average of 7.5 hours a day on media, and in the last year, 42 percent them have been exposed to pornography. Mama, it’s time to be on-guard.
2. Let conversations surface during your daily routine. Rather than forcing discussions out of the blue, use daily circumstances to frame the conversation. For instance, one of the group’s leaders passed a mall lingerie store with her 2 young sons, and she used the opportunity to talk to them about body image and photo manipulation.
3. Focus on the beauty of love and sex, not the mechanics. Spend a significant amount of time focusing on the reality of real relationships, and how they are built and maintained. Our kids see lots of violent, sexual and unhealthy relationships in the media. We need to show them what real love is, through the example of our relationships, with them and with our spouses.
4. Let your main goal be building a caring, open, non-judgmental basis of communication with your child, from an early age. I may not want to talk to my son about the birds and the bees yet, but I can teach him that I value his body and his boundaries. So, even when he says, “Don’t touch my hair, Mom,” I take that seriously. I want him to know that I respect him, and this way, I am also teaching him that his body is his.
5. Try to set up the idea of a “safe zone.” This is a theoretical “place” where your child should feel free and safe to ask any questions and make any comments, without judgment or repercussion. For instance, if my son says he likes to touch his private parts, rather than scolding him, I should say: “Oh really? Why is that?” Then, teach. Encourage the sharing. Don’t stomp on it.
6. Don’t force your child to give hugs to someone they don’t want to. It’s so tough because we want our kids to be courteous to adults, but at the same time, they need to know that they don’t have to touch anyone they don’t want to. Their body is theirs.
7. It’s completely normal for young boys, and even infants, to have erections. I couldn’t believe this. If your son wants to know why he has an erection, tell him it won’t last long and suggest he go pee (which can help it pass). And, for all anatomy-related questions, the book’s authors encourage parents to respond with clear answers, and avoid associating any shame or embarrassment with the question. If he asks what his penis is for, tell him it’s for urinating.
8. When discussing the vagina, don’t bring up childbirth. Again, answer questions simply and don’t include unnecessary details. Stay away from the mechanics of intercourse or labor. Your preschooler will get distracted.
9. Set rules for public situations. For example, in public, we do not remove our clothing, urinate or touch parts of our bodies that are covered by clothes. These are hard and fast rules that teach boundaries and what’s appropriate.
10. Establish that there are certain activities we do in private. Going to the bathroom, changing clothes, taking a bath, these are all things we do in private. For my preschooler, I like to say, “Okay, I’m going to give you some privacy to get dressed.” This way, he knows that this is something he is encouraged to do alone.
11. Kids should go to the potty alone as soon as they are able. I thought this was a really interesting point. To develop a healthy attitude about privacy and self-sufficiency, kids who are potty-trained should be encouraged to go to the bathroom without their friends or others present, as soon as they’re able. This is a private time that they don’t need to share with anyone else.
12. Focus on good touch. Explain to your child the many positive ways you can show affection, like cuddling, kissing, hugging or holding hands. Discuss the appropriate ways your family shows affection.
13. Establish the idea of bad touch. If your preschooler is hit by another child, seize the moment and explain to him that this is bad touch because he didn’t like it. “And,” you can say, “whenever someone touches you in a way you don’t like, make sure you tell an adult.” The book’s authors also suggest telling children that no one should touch them in places that are covered by their underwear.
14. Avoid blanket definitions. Don’t say “we trust our teachers,” because that’s not always true. Explain that just because we “know” someone doesn’t automatically mean they’re a trusted adult. And, if there’s an adult you don’t trust, even if it’s a family member or close family friend, Scott suggests telling your child outright: “Just say, ‘He’s not a good guy.’ What’s more important: hurt feelings or the safety of your child?” Remember, the goal is to assure and empower your child to trust their gut by communicating with honesty.
15. Teach your child that it’s okay to say ‘no.’ Talk about the hardest concept to want to teach a preschooler, who’s a millisecond past being a disobedient, curious toddler! But, when my son says ‘no,’ I never tell him, “You don’t tell me no!” Instead, I try to encourage him to say ‘no, thank you’ instead. I want him to express his true feelings, as long as he uses a respectful tone.
16. Explain where babies come from. It’s not easy to explain this to a preschooler (I would know), but when you do, keep it simple and uncomplicated. “Mommies have a special place in their tummies. It’s called a uterus, and that’s where babies grow until they’re ready to be born.”
17. Teach that people change, grow and develop. This is a great time to ask your preschooler what they want to be when they grow up. Let the conversation bloom into questions like, “When you grow up, do you think you’ll be the same size as you are now, or will you be big like Daddy?” Teaching that our bodies change encourages healthy ideas about body image.
18. Set ground rules that are specific to your family. For instance, one of mine is: “I’m going to take a shower, so please stay in the living room so I can have privacy.” Other situations, mentioned in the book, are: “We don’t touch our private parts around other people” and “We can talk about our private parts with our parents, but not with our teachers.” Adjust for your family dynamic.
19. Teach your child to say ‘stop.’ Of course, there are plenty of applications for this with kids at the playground. You can practice a sample dialogue with your child, like: “Please stop tickling me; it’s not fun anymore,” “You may not hit me; stop hitting me” or “I don’t want to wrestle anymore; let’s stop.” Of course, enforcing this self-assurance means respecting when your child asks you to stop, too. When my husband tickles our boys, I’m very sensitive to making sure he stops when they ask him to.
20. List similarities and differences between boys and girls. Both start as babies. Both can have dark hair. Both urinate, but girls sit down and boys stand up.
21. Don’t force friends on your child, but do make sure they respect other kids (even those they don’t like). It’s important not to force friendships. But, parents should teach that, even if you don’t like another child, you can still respect them.
22. Set up potty-time rules with your child. Be clear about who should help them go to the bathroom (if anyone). Discuss how they should ask for help, when they should ask, and from whom. Remind them of the “rules” before they go to school, have a babysitter or go to a friend’s house.
23. It’s okay to have potty accidents. The authors suggest establishing a foundation of trust by never punishing your child for having an accident. Nighttime bedwetting is common, even until kids are 6 or 7. Again, you want your child to come to you when they have a problem, not hide it from you.
24. Teach your child that no one should ever make them look at images that make them uncomfortable. This is a tough one for me. I can’t talk to my 3-year-old about porn, and I don’t want to. But, I can capitalize on our daily situations to teach that he doesn’t need to look at things he doesn’t want to. For instance, if a TV program scares him, I can say, “Thank you for telling me you don’t want to watch this. You never have to look at something you don’t want to.” The authors suggest giving preschoolers very simple, straight-forward rules: we don’t look at naked pictures, we don’t take naked pictures and we don’t allow naked pictures to be taken of ourselves.
25. Don’t say, “Being naked is bad.” It’s tempting during the I’m-telling-you-porn-is-bad-without-really-saying-it talk to tell your preschooler that it’s bad to be naked. But again, avoid blanket statements like this, which can reinforce negative body image. Instead, say, “We don’t look at people when they’re naked.”
26. Don’t overreact if your child has seen porn. To find out, ask something like, “Have you ever seen movies or pictures of naked people?” (Again, the appropriateness of this conversation varies by child, and you know your kid best.) If the answer is ‘yes,’ the book’s authors suggest: determining the severity of the images, asking your child how it made them feel and taking apart what they saw, explaining that such images are altered and don’t reflect reality. (In fact, Scott wrote a whole post about it.) Make sure not to overreact or make your child feel shamed. If your child is traumatized, professional help might also be needed.
27. Don’t force your child to take pictures. Obviously, I can tell my 3-year-old that we’re going to take our family pictures in a few days, and I’d like him to be in them. But random people or family members taking random pictures, and forcing a child to be in them, just isn’t necessary. Let your child say ‘no’ and back their decision.
28. Tell other parents your family’s policies regarding media. For instance, if your child is going to a friend’s house, tell the parents that you don’t allow him to be on the computer without an adult in the room. And, ask other parents what their preferences are, with regard to electronic content and devices. Even if they don’t have a preference, asking the question promotes awareness.
29. Praise your child if they bring you porn. If our kids see images that make them uncomfortable, the best thing they can do is bring those images to us. Praise them for doing so, and you’ll promote a climate of trust. If we are accepting and encouraging, our kids are more likely to turn to us, rather than hiding, when they encounter something dangerous in the future.
30. Reinforce that beauty is on the inside. Set the example, and don’t call yourself “fat” or critique your appearance in front of them. Your child’s true worth is their character, not their physical appearance. Reinforce their sense of self-worth by identifying the beauty and strength in their internal qualities.
Thanks to Educate and Empower Kids for making me aware of this important issue, and for sponsoring this post. 30 Days of Sex Talks: Empowering Your Child With Emotional Intimacy is currently available on Amazon.